A young woman runs down the street and into the night, frightened and fleeing from something — or someone. She’s carrying a large kitchen knife.
Before you can say, “Hey, that’s Julianne Hough in a brown wig!” she’s lopped off her hair, dyed it blonde, cloaked herself in a hoodie and ducked onto a bus headed south — just seconds ahead of the frazzled Boston cop desperately trying find her before she can slip away.
“Safe Haven” marks the eighth of author Nicholas Sparks’ wildly popular, fem-centric romance novels, including “The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle,” “A Walk to Remember” and “Dear John,” to get the big-screen treatment. Like most of its predecessors, it’s set in a Southern coastal community, features an attractive young couple who meet, court and fall in love under stressful circumstances, share at least one mega-passionate kiss, get caught in a rainstorm, and frequently paddle off in a canoe.
All of that happens in “Safe Haven,” which could very well be the name of the quaint South Carolina seaside burg (it’s actually Southport) where Hough’s character, going by the alias of Katie, hops off the coach. There she meets the hunky widowed general-store owner Alex (Josh Duhamel) and his precocious daughter, a dollop of pure, pint-sized sunshine, and his withdrawn son, who’s still having trouble emerging from behind the clouds after the untimely death of his mom from cancer.
Katie (whose makeup looks amazing, by the way, after a night of sleeping on the sand) tries hard to keep a low profile, but is eventually drawn to Alex’s sheer good-guy-ness. (Surely you’re not surprised.) She buys a gallon of “Fresh Start” paint (get it?) to cover up the kitchen floors in the secluded woodland cabin in which she’s going to begin her new life.
At this point, however, we still don’t know much about her old life. But flashbacks reveal bits of domestic-nightmare “Sleeping With the Enemy” DNA with every peek behind the curtain. The movie also interrupts the idyllic day-to-day rhythms of Southport to remind us of the threatening, escalating investigation by the police detective (David Lyons) in Boston, who’s disturbingly obsessed with tracking Katie down.
Meanwhile, Katie also makes a new friend, another young, curiously rootless woman named Jo (Cobie Smulders, Robin on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”), who becomes her confidant, cheerleader and soul mate. “Life is full of second chances,” Jo tells her.
“Second chances” may be the main theme of this story, but “surprises” comes in a close second. Of course, no one in Southport knows who Katie really is — and boy, are they ever surprised when they find out … or think they’ve found out … or find out what … oh, whatever. But there are other surprises, too, and one of them is a real golly-whopper.
“Safe Haven” takes its own sweet time to get to where it’s going, often moving along at the pace of that leisurely paddled canoe, at least until the final 20 minutes, when it arrives at the big, explosive, action-y roll call of everything and everyone, in one place, at one time, plus fireworks.
But acclaimed Swedish director Lasse Hallström (“The Cider House Rules,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” and one other Sparks-to-screen adaptation, “Dear John”) is certainly no slouch behind the camera, and he seems to be giving his audience exactly what his audience wants. “Safe Haven,” released on Valentine’s Day, has all the elements of a perfectly calibrated crowd-pleaser, especially for the females to which Sparks’ novels are targeted.
But many males may also be able to relate, in a perverse way, to the scene in which Katie is coerced into one of the town’s maritime customs, nighttime fish gigging. As she plunges a spear into the water and immediately pierces a hapless flounder — a quick, clean, get-it-over-with kill — a lot of guys who find themselves on the long, strung-out hook-and-line for another date-night Sparks-fest of wet Southern kisses, soaking rain and soul-bearing seaside conversations might find themselves secretly wishing for the same swift, merciful fate.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Safe Haven”
STARRING: Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel
DIRECTED BY: Lasse Hallström
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes