When it comes to trying to make you cry, there are no safe havens in "Safe Haven."
The latest film based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks -- the author who has elicited more tears than an onion factory -- includes plot points of spousal abuse, cancer, cute kids, children in peril, a hunk with a heavy heart, loss of a parent, letters from the grave and a lot more.
None of this story is very original. But if you have even the tiniest sliver of romance in you, see no other movie than this one on Valentine's Day. And be sure to bring some extra tissues.
"Dancing With the Stars" alumnus Julianne Hough plays Katie, a woman on the run who ends up in a sleepy -- on the verge of comatose -- little North Carolina community (a favorite locale for a Sparks tale of tears). No sooner is she off the bus than she meets the town's eligible widower, Alex (Josh Duhamel), who is trying do his best to raise his kids since his wife died a few years ago.
Sparks fly. But the relationship unfolds slowly because Katie has a dark past and Alex is cautious about bringing another woman into his family. His young son (Noah Lomax) dislikes the idea of any new woman who threatens the memory of his mom, while young daughter (Mimi Kirkland) is desperate for some maternal attention.
Since the story elements aren't that new, the major key to making a Sparks movie work is how much you want the central couple to fall in love. The characters played by Duhamel and Hough have so much pain, it would be a sin for them not to find some happiness together.
Lasse Hallström's film is a beautiful blend of Hallmark Card moments, from meeting to sharing a disastrous date in the rain to eventually giving into their obvious attraction for each other. These are such schmaltzy moments they block the dark side of the tale.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Sparks story without some hurdles to overcome. The film's biggest weakness is the police officer (David Lyons) on an unrelenting mission to track down Katie. There's devotion to duty and there's dark obsession. Lyons' performance goes way beyond both, to the point of caricature. He's a modern day melodramatic villain without the handlebar mustache.
There are so many points that can't be discussed without giving too much away. All that can be said safely is Cobie Smulders gets the most out of her role to make this romance a full tearjerker.
Sparks never has been subtle when it comes to being an emotional manipulator and there are moments of "Safe Haven" that seem like the biggest manipulations of his career. Cynics, and those who believe love is nothing more than the name of a Beatles-themed Las Vegas show, should not wander into a theater showing "Safe Haven." This kind of emotional barrage can weaken even the hardest of hearts.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559)441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.