The romantic thriller “Safe Haven” plays like an extended infomercial for the lulling charms of Southport, N.C., where the movie was filmed. This picture-perfect town is presented as the go-to destination for terrorized damsels in distress. Here in this tiny paradise, where gentle waters lap the shore and gold-and-purple sunsets stretch all the way to heaven, a new beginning awaits.
A selling point in this glossy real-estate spread is the opportunity to snag a local dreamboat who is even yummier than the buff ciphers distributing roses on “The Bachelor.” If “Safe Haven” is a hit, poor little Southport could face a stampede of ravenous bachelorettes.
Watching this weepy sudsfest, the eighth film adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, is like drawing a scented bath. The first spritz from the faucet may be scalding, but once you adjust the temperature, you can settle into a warm and caressing soup and dream the impossible dream. But before that dream can come true, you must endure one final test: a nightmarish Fourth of July of fire and fury in which the past screeches into town determined to drag you back into the bowels of hell.
That hell is Boston. The distressed damsel, Katie Feldman (Julianne Hough), is shown in the opening scene fleeing her Boston home in the rain with a policeman in hot pursuit. Extremely coy about the circumstances of her departure, the movie suggests she may have killed someone, but you don’t see enough of the body to determine either the victim’s identity or state of being.
Katie boards an Atlanta-bound bus and impulsively gets off at Southport, where she rents a cabin in the woods and takes a job waiting on tables in a cafe. Here she meets Prince Charming, aka Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel), a widowed storekeeper raising two adorable children, Josh (Noah Lomax) and Lexi (Mimi Kirkland). Katie is also befriended by Jo (Cobie Smulders), a mysterious, slightly creepy neighbor she first meets when she arrives home to find the woman peering through the windows of her shabby fixer-upper.
“Safe Haven,” directed by Lasse Hallstrom from a screenplay by Dana Stevens and Gage Lansky, spices this idyll with enough small shocks to sustain an underlying tone of dread. As Katie relaxes and opens up, you worry that her new life seems too good to be true. To maintain the suspense the movie occasionally flashes back to the scene of the crime being investigated by Kevin Tierney (David Lyons), a handsome wild-eyed Javert. It isn’t long before Katie’s face adorns a person-of-interest poster in a first-degree murder case.
A question gnaws: Who are these people? As in a reality show dating competition, most subjects of conversation are off limits. With no mention of politics, religion, money or cultural tastes, the characters are attractive blanks who invite you fill in the emptiness with your fantasies. The lovers, whose romance develops very slowly, frolic on the beach with Alex’s children and go canoeing. But that’s about it. Alex’s wife died of cancer several years earlier, and there is the obligatory I-miss-Mommy moment that efficiently taps into the movie’s well of crocodile tears.
The weakest parts of “Safe Haven” are its action sequences, in which the illusion of reality is shattered by ham-handed editing, garish special effects and comic-book dialogue. The climactic inferno, which explodes whatever credibility the movie built up, is immediately followed by a cheap, out-of-the-blue supernatural twist. The equivalent of a forged signature, it attests to the movie’s essential falsity.