Sparks and surprises in 'Safe Haven' ★★

There's romance of course, and an average presentation, but a bit of a thriller sneaks in

'Safe Haven'

Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel star in "Safe Haven." (February 13, 2013)

The new Nicholas Sparks movie, "Safe Haven," takes place in Southport, in the novelist's adopted home state of North Carolina. Southport is near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. So you know a murderous stalker will eventually arrive, in honor of Robert Mitchum in "Cape Fear."

It's a new wrinkle to have a Sparks plot so dependent on thriller and mystery elements, some of them surprise-dependent and therefore off-limits for the purposes of the latest two-star review of the latest adequate Sparks adaptation. Prologue: A desperate young woman played by Julianne Hough flees the scene of a crime in Boston, under the cloak of night, with a fiercely dedicated police detective (David Lyons) on her tail.

Assuming a new haircut and a tight-lipped persona, Katie gets off the bus at Southport, secures a job at the local waterfront diner in 10 minutes flat, rents a picturesque cabin in the woods 10 minutes or so later and soon begins trading cautious yet demurely smoldering glances with the local general store proprietor. He is portrayed by Josh Duhamel, and his character — a widower with two children — is the safe haven of the title.

Katie has something to hide; the detective has someone to find; Duhamel's Alex has some grieving to put behind him; director Lasse Hallstrom has some sunsets and canoeing montages to shoot in order to pass the time before things grow violent and threatening and then go calm and upbeat again, the way they do in Sparks movies.

I like Duhamel, and in her first straight-up dramatic role Hough does well enough, though her singing and/dancing career thus far has trained her to oversell, as opposed to sell, as opposed to act naturally. As for Jo, the mysterious single woman who befriends Katie: She's played by Cobie Smulders, and she too has a secret to reveal. You may find yourself way, way out ahead of her news as you watch the sunsets and the golden close-ups drift by. Alex and Katie's courtship, for the record, begins with a coffee shop chat on the nutritional merits of kale, moves on to a late-night dance at a bait and tackle shop and culminates in discreet lovemaking in the moonlit cabin in the woods. Sparks knows his audience: This is such stuff as paperback-rack and February multiplex dreams are made on.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Safe Haven' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality)
Running time: 1:55
Opens: Thursday

CHICAGO

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