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Article updated: 2/14/2013 2:11 PM

Few sparks in Sparks' safe domestic drama 'Haven'

Katie (Julianne Hough) has a secret and Alex (Josh Duhamel) has a secret crush on her in the Nicholas Sparks inspired drama "Safe Haven."

Katie (Julianne Hough) has a secret and Alex (Josh Duhamel) has a secret crush on her in the Nicholas Sparks inspired drama "Safe Haven."

 
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Let's start with the title, shall we?

"Haven" means "a safe place." So "Safe Haven," the title of Nicholas Sparks' novel upon which this movie is based, actually means "A safe safe place." As opposed to what? A safe unsafe place?

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"Safe Haven"

★ ★
Starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, David Lyons, Cobie Smulders
Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom
Other: A Relativity Media release. Rated PG-13 for sexual situations and violence. 115 minutes

I only mention this example of subliteracy to illustrate how director Lasse Hallstrom's movie doesn't deliver just a safe, non-challenging version of Sparks' formula story elements -- bodies of water, revealing letters, broken hearts, long-fuse romances, cute cast members -- it delivers a really, really safe version, his second insipidity-doo-da Sparks-inspired drama following last year's "The Lucky One."

Hallstrom's unsubtle sense of foreshadowing actually ruined one of the story's key twists for me early on, and that made the rest of "Safe Haven" rather anticlimactic, for me, anyway.

At least the Sparks' tradition of attractive, troubled lovers remains upheld by the effervescently charismatic Julianne Hough and the unaffectedly charming Josh Duhamel.

She plays Katie Feldman, who starts the drama by nervously sneaking out of Boston while a zealous police detective named Kevin Tierney (David Lyons) desperately dashes through the bus station trying to find and stop her.

(Hmmm. Maybe this has something to do with those scary, enigmatic flashbacks of a brunette Katie holding a blood-soaked butcher knife?)

Now a blonde with an adorably wistful coif, Katie arrives at a small North Carolina coastal town and decides to stay for a while. She gets a job at a local cafe called Ivan's. She rents a rustic cabin in the woods (without zombies and chain saw killers) and makes a friend in Jo (Cobie Smulders), a friendly neighbor way, way down the road.

At the local general store, Katie locks peepers with the owner, Alex (Duhamel), a widower struggling to be a good dad to his preciously personable daughter Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) and his quietly angry son Josh (Noah Lomax.) Katie and Lexie bond instantly.

But it takes four songs and many small gestures of kindness and caring moments on the beach before Katie warms up to Alex enough to do the dance of the wild crustaceans.

I should note right now that nothing really happens for the first hour and 16 minutes into "Safe Haven," outside of the four aforementioned song interludes.

Seriously, nothing.

But the moment Katie and Alex become a couple, "Safe Haven" abruptly becomes Lifetime cable channel fodder, a domestic drama rife with spousal abuse, alcoholism, attempted suicide, shooting, and victimized women who can't take it anymore.

It's as if this movie only operates in two modes: underwrought and overwrought. Why can't it all just be plain wrought?

The attractive main cast is matched by Terry Stacey's postcard-quality widescreen cinematography, accompanied by Deborah Lurie's gentle score that restrains itself from dictating our emotional reactions.

Actually, the best reactions are won by little Lexie's Mimi Kirkland, whose exchanges with customers while manning the cash register become the most memorable parts of this safe, safe movie.

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