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‘Safe Haven’ has an original story to tell that’s worth watching

There’s a long-standing joke about how to create a money-making romance novel:

Create a good-looking couple, add a plot hook that drives a wedge between them, add a couple of “tastefully worded” sex scenes, and have Jon Paul design your cover art.

Enter Nicholas Sparks.

While simultaneously shattering the preconceived “template” for the successful romance story, he immediately went to work crafting a new magic formula of his own. It’s been so successful that he now has his own movie production company for the express purpose of taking his New York Times Bestsellers and turning them into Hollywood Blockbusters.

Which has itself led to a new joke about Nicholas Sparks films. It goes something like this:

Step One: Start with two pretty white people.

Step Two: Create an obstacle that makes love between them impossible.

Step Three: Make them fall in love anyway.

Step Four: Throw in a completely-out-of-left-field, exploitative, awful disaster that only serves to jerk tears and turn an otherwise forgettable romance into a trajedy.

Step Five: Contact the only poster designer you know.

Step Six: County your money.

Now, if you only looked scratched the surface of Sparks’ latest bestseller-turned-blockbuster, “Safe Haven,” you might see how the joke is not only funny but true. But, if you dig a little deeper, you see how the story — while somewhat formulaic — is still just as original as all the rest of his stories.

And, like the rest of Nicholas Sparks’ previous films, “Safe Haven” is worth watching on the merits of that originality alone. Some have come to bemoan the author’s “overuse” of fantasy to make his stories fall into place, but — even as a guy — I am willing to embrace the fantastic.

As always, no spoilers. But here are the basic elements of the story:

Katie (played by Julianne Hough) has come to the small coastal community of Southport, N.C., in the hope of running away form “trouble” she left behind. She meets Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widower dad with two adorable children (played by scene-stealers Noah Lomaz and Mimi Kirkland) — this is a Nicholas Sparks film, after all — and they immediately develop an awkward relationship.

Meanwhile, Katie’s new neighbor, the delightfully “Southern” Jo (Cobie Smulders), attempts to teach Katie all about the nobility of living out one’s days “down south.” But the best supporting role award goes to David Lyons, whose character is important to the film — nope, no spoilers — which he nails in a very creepy way.

The Oscars were presented just last weekend, so perhaps it’s timely to note that Oscar nominee Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) directed this film. His influences on the film are fairly obvious, from the slowed pace to the emphasis on the local culture.

At the end of the day, this is a romantic drama, or as we guys refer to them, “chick flicks,” not a potential Academy Award nominee. But, it’s definitely a worthwhile investment of time and money for a good date night activity. So, grab your wife or girlfriend, and enjoy a good, two-hour escape from reality.

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