Nicholas Sparks, the best-selling novelist now on his eighth film adaptation, knows what works and he's sticking with it. Since 1999's "Message in a Bottle," starring Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn, he's been providing the foundations for classy, tasteful romantic dramas with attractive stars and top-shelf directors. Generally speaking, the settings are bucolic, the heroines damaged, the men bereft, the letters written on creamy stationery. And somewhere in there, you're sure to find a vague spirituality, thick and gooey as a store-bought pie.
Not much has changed in Sparks' latest, "Safe Haven," which he also coproduced. Julianne Hough ("Rock of Ages") plays Katie, a new arrival to the little fishing village of Southport, N.C., who's looking for privacy but instead finds Alex (Josh Duhamel, "Life as We Know It"). His wife recently died of cancer, leaving him to raise little Lexi (gaptoothed Mimi Kirkland) and Josh (Noah Lomax, "Playing for Keeps"). Back in Boston, though, a single-minded cop is looking for Katie -- turns out she left behind a knife covered in someone's blood.
That's something of a departure for Sparks, but the tension and sense of danger help push along this low-wattage romance. Hough and Duhamel are both pleasant to look at -- she's appealingly zaftig, he's unthreateningly hunky -- and director Lasse Hallström ("Salmon Fishing in the Yemen") treats them tenderly, focusing more on hand-holding than lovemaking. The guy who really spikes the movie's pulse is that cop, played with tingly menace by a very good David Lyons.
"Safe Haven" is passably engaging and almost works as a proper thriller. Then -- wham! Sparks throws that schmaltz pie right in your kisser. He's sticking with it, all right.
PLOT A young woman with a mysterious past finds a new life, and love, in a small town. RATING PG-13 (mild sexuality and violence)
CAST Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, David Lyons, Cobie Smulders.
BOTTOM LINE A pleasant enough romance helped along by mild suspense, but this Nicholas Sparks adaptation also includes a serving of schmaltz big enough to choke on. You've been warned.