The 1991 film Sleeping with the Enemy featured Julia Roberts as Laura Burney, a nice young woman trying to restart her life after escaping an abusive and controlling husband. Living under an assumed identity, Laura finds love in a town bucolic enough to have a Fourth of July day parade, although the bad husband eventually shows up and memorably tidies up her bathroom (most women dream of this) before tries to kill her and her new beau. The movie was an adaptation of a novel by Nancy Prince. In Safe Haven, Lasse Hallstrom’s second adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks’ book (the first was 2010’s Dear John) cute Katie (Julianne Hough) goes through almost exactly the same motions, although absent any compulsive towel straightening and with the addition of a supernatural twist.
The movies are so alike it’s a wonder someone hasn’t sued, although it seems unlikely that Hough is on the kind of trajectory Roberts, fresh off Pretty Woman, was at that point. Not to heap praise on Sleeping with the Enemy, but of all the movies Roberts made in her 20s, none exploited her talent for displaying vulnerability more effectively than this TV-movie woman-in-peril thriller. Hough, sturdy and placid, is no trembling doe on the run and she fails to make Katie compelling or even interesting. The greatest concern Safe Haven evokes is for the innocents around her who may suffer at the hands of the brutish police detective (David Lyons) chasing her.
Katie arrives in Southport, North Carolina via an Atlanta-bound bus, having escaped some domestic mess in Boston—an unidentified man is left bloodied on a floor as a brunette Katie flees to an older woman’s house. By the time she boards the bus she’s a blonde with a buttery bob (her boxed dye produces gorgeous highlights) and clutching a plastic bag full of clothes. Katie has no particular destination, but she finds something warm and inviting in Southport. How could anyone resist a seaside town where a cup of Ethiopian coffee costs only 97 cents and is served up by someone as handsome as Josh Duhamel?
He runs the general store, but his character, Alex, is presented with such reality-bending contrivance they should call it a convenience store. He’s a widower, father to outgoing little girl Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) and sullen son Josh (Noah Lomax), both in clear need of a maternal figure in their lives. Katie initially resists Alex’s advances, but she and Lexie immediately become fast friends. Starting over in Southport seems easy: Katie finds waitressing work with minimal effort and a fully furnished cottage in the woods. Her only neighbor is Jo (Cobie Smolders), who encourages Katie to give Alex a chance; when Katie refuses the bike he very nicely leaves out for her, it’s Jo who gently advises her to take it: “it’s a bike, not a kidney.”
Apologies to Hallstrom, but an adaptation of a Sparks novel always ends up being a Sparks movie. The skilled director casts a pleasing glow over the proceedings, but he’s boxed into the now-familiar Sparksian tropes. Homes, including Katie’s twee shack, are fetishized into nearly the same importance as the gorgeous actors. Kissing in the rain is a must, as is a romp on a sandy beach. A post-dinner dance (in a conveniently empty and softly lit restaurant) is a prelude to tasteful love making. All this fun stuff involving picture perfect humans is interspersed with quick cuts to scenes in Boston, where Detective Tierney gloomily investigates Katie’s disappearance. He too is uncannily handsome, but from the way he guzzles vodka, scowls at surveillance tapes and cavalierly waves his police badge around there can be no doubt that he is bad to the bone. Yet no one is likely to worry much about the eventual outcome. Hough projects a bland durability in the role; the only puzzle about capable, sensible Katie is why she would have put up with her spousal abuse as long as she did.
(READ: TIME’S review of Dear John)
What’s the point then, if she’s not a girl we’re desperately worried about? This could be a problem with Hough’s performance—she’s all sunshine but no heat—but in general, Sparks seems to taking it easier on his audiences these days. He’s making his escapism more escapist. In his earlier career, he was in the beautiful-people-dying-young business, nimbly knitting up saccharine takes on Love Story. He killed off one of his principals in The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, and who can forget the way he tossed Kevin Costner’s character overboard in Message in a Bottle? In more recent years the prolific author has moved on to more palatable deaths, a sick dad or a brother say, rather than picking off the lovers who kiss in the rain. In Safe Haven he’s figured out a way to maximize the sentimentality from one of these peripheral deaths with a supernatural twist. It’s maudlin but effective. The man is a cultural magpie, capable of borrowing from a 1991 Julia Roberts flick and M. Night Shyamalan in one fell swoop. He’ll never get an award for originality, but when it comes to rehashing formula and pleasing his audience, the man is a master.