Not even director Lasse Hallstrom can save "Safe Haven" from being plodding and predictable. Hallstrom, known for his great behind the scenes work on "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" (2011), "Chocolat" (2000), "The Cider House Rules" (1999) and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993) can usually eek out wonderful performances from his actors, no matter what the challenges. He had some success in his last Nicholas Sparks novel-to-film direction, "Dear John," so he does know the turf.

But with "Safe Haven," the obstacles must have proven to be too great. Julianne Hough, who has parlayed an acting career out of being a singer and dancer, is given the task of leading lady, a woman on the run from an abusive husband and a plot that's almost a carbon copy of Julia Roberts' 1991 on-the-run-from-crazy-hubby romance "Sleeping with the Enemy."

Josh Duhamel is the small-town sensitive widower, Alex, who is running a seaside grocery store in a Norman Rockwell-esque North Carolina town. It's the kind of store where you can buy pork rinds, basmati rice and paint all in the same swoop. He's raising two small children and is experience growing pains as a newly singled father.

Katie (Hough) has boarded a bus from Boston to Atlanta to flee the abuse at the hands of her alcoholic husband, but a pit stop in the tiny town gives her pause and she decides to make the place her last stop.

She's welcomed into the town easily, getting a job at a seafood shack, and, of course, catching the eye of the handsome widower.

Based on Nicholas Sparks' book, "Safe Haven" is a sappy love story that is sure to draw its female fan base to this film, but adds an extra twist for men with a thriller injection. In the film, however, it somehow serves to knock the whole thing off balance, creating a jarring effect for the thriller-esque final half hour.

Hollywood has been chasing the success it had with Sparks' "The Notebook," but that magical formula remains elusive. Duhamel and Hough are pretty enough together, but, no pun intended, the sparks never really fly. David Lyons as the off-his-rocker husband is unbelievably bad to the bone, although his dastardly portrayal does get him much applause when he does meet with misfortune.

The upshot of the film is it does a fine job with drawing audiences into this picture-perfect world -- a small town where everyone's welcome and a Fourth of July parade is lauded as a major event. Cinematographer Terry Stacey creates a dreamy palette of locations, including a canoeing scene that is escapist fare at its finest.

If everything were as balanced, including Hallstrom's direction (his constant interjecting of the Boston subplot is jarring and, honestly, annoying), "Safe Haven" might be a memorable Sparks swooner. This one just looks like it was churned out in time for the Valentine's Day date-night movie rush. Regardless, Sparks fans will eat it up like a box of V-Day chocolates.