A story of romance between a widower and a mysterious woman new to town is what many audience members might expect from the movie adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ book, “Safe Haven.” But this movie, well-timed for Valentine’s Day, is definitely not your typical love story.

The opening scene shows Julianne Hough, (“Footloose”) who plays Katie, frantically run down a street while she sobs. There appears to be blood on her hand and she carries a small plastic bag. The scene ends abruptly as she pounds on someone’s door to let her in. Suddenly, we see Katie at a bus station, where she now sports a new hairstyle and rushes onto a bus, clearly in fear of something.

Flash forward to days later, when troubled Katie lands in a small town in rural North Carolina. She quickly meets Alex (Josh Duhamel, “Movie 43″), a widower with two children who runs a small convenience store. Right off the bat it’s clear that romance will blossom between the two strangers.

Since Katie experienced–or perhaps committed–some sort of heinous crime, she keeps to herself in her new town. She is a tough nut for Alex to crack and barely speaks to anyone in the welcoming town. After Alex drops off a bike at Katie’s isolated new home, her mask begins to crumple. Soon the laidback and friendly essence of the town washes over her and she gives in to Alex.

Like most Sparks movies (“The Notebook,” “Dear John,” “The Last Song”), there are heavy make-out scenes, scenes in the rain, a kayak date and longing glances between Katie and Alex. Katie bonds with Alex’s children (Noah Lomax, “Playing for Keeps” and Mimi Kirkland), and magically becomes like the mother they lost so young. These parts of the movie definitely yank at the heartstrings. Everything seems to be going smoothly for the lovebirds, but as the opening scene suggested, there is a whole other storyline that explains Katie’s backstory.

Between the kisses and romantic gestures, the film flips to a Boston Police Detective, Tierney, (David Lyons, TV’s “Revolution”) who is obsessed with Katie. He sends out a mass warrant for Katie to police stations across the country and claims she is guilty of murder in the first degree. Tierney eventually learns Katie is in North Carolina and sets out to find her.

What should have been the most dramatic scene between the lovers end up being a big build-up to nothing. One would think when Alex saw the warrant for Katie’s arrest for murder, he would go bananas. Instead, after a bickering argument between the two, they reconcile within minutes without any explanation from Katie. Not only is this unrealistic, but Hough’s amateur acting skills mixed with Duhamel’s lack of seriousness make it almost painful to watch as the two apologize to each other.

Although the suspense enhances the action in the film, the combination of two storylines takes away from the romance Sparks fans crave. The moment the viewer feels connected to the romance between Katie and Alex, the film flips back to Tierney’s alcoholism and obsession with finding Katie. 

“Safe Haven” is one of those movies where romance is expected, yet the viewer will leave feeling as if they got swindled. The suspenseful side story not only took away from the romantic plotline, but also made the viewer confused with what to focus on. All in all, the mediocre acting, half-baked plot and rapid ending in “Safe Haven” are predictable and a likely let down for diehard Sparks fans.

3 out of 5 stars