The Nicholas Sparks universe finally gets the crime thriller it deserves, an erratic amalgam of mush and mystery, with an 11th-hour dose of supernatural visitation.
Watching "Safe Haven," one feels a strange disconnect between what is happening with the characters and what is happening in the plot.
In the foreground is a love story between a pair of agreeable stock characters. There's Katie (Julianne Hough), a Bostonian newly arrived in sleepy, photogenic Southport, N.C., and Alex (Josh Duhamel), the handsome, widowed proprietor of the quaint oceanside grocery.
Behind them, clanking and grinding and popping rivets, is the story apparatus, a devilish meat grinder combining domestic violence, interstate flight from pursuing police and restless spirits.
What's your point exactly, Nick?
One can understand the impulse to make "Safe Haven" stand apart from Sparks' growing catalog of bland, interchangeable romance movies, but the result is figurative and literal overkill. By piling complications atop surprise revelations, this scatterbrained film gets in its own way.
The film starts in a rush as Katie flees what appears to be a crime scene, slipping past authorities by wearing a hoodie and feigning pregnancy. That may be a character note, actually.
Hopping off a bus in scenic Southport, she's magnetically attracted to single dad Alex and his appealing kids. He's a sitcom-style lovable doofus with good fixer-upper potential.
As a woman on the lam, however, Katie can't reveal her feelings, despite the urging of Jo (Cobie Smulders), a neighbor who encourages her to lighten up and settle down.
The film is competently directed by Lasse Hallstrom, but the back-and-forth design of the romantic mystery defeats him.
We're supposed to wonder whether Katie is a fugitive murderess, but we're not fooled. The misdirection is all too obvious.
The scene-of-the-crime vignettes are montages that clearly omit relevant information.
Besides, Sparks' heroines are paragons. When the real villain is revealed, that character is extra despicable with sprinkles on top, defiling a July 4th parade just so there's no confusion.
The film concludes with a forehead-slapping twist that throws the last vestige of logic out the window. Movies don't have to make a lick of sense to be great entertainment, as long as they're fleet-footed enough to keep us diverted.
"Safe Haven" bogs down in every new twist. It's a 10-round cage match between form and content, fought to a punishing, pointless draw.
Cast: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, Cobie Smulders, David Lyons
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
PG-13 (thematic material involving threatening behavior, violence and sexuality)