There’s not a single moment of emotional honesty in this latest helping of meretricious melodrama from the pen of Nicholas Sparks, but that probably won’t stop his fans from sighing and weeping over its ham-fisted mixture of giggly romance and cheap sentiment. But while in earlier pictures based on his books Sparks at least made a stab at narrative complexity, in “The Choice” he seems to be coasting, reducing the story to the simplest, more rudimentary terms and then slathering it with banalities so obvious that you can hardly believe you’re hearing them.
A big dose of those puerilities comes at the very start, with narration informing us at inordinate length about how important choices are in life—a stunning revelation. The words are spoken—in an unaccountably thick drawl, given that none of his friends, family or neighbors in the small North Carolina town that’s the setting of the piece, share it—by Travis Parker (Benjamin Walker), whom we see running into a hospital before we flash back to ten years earlier, when he was a loud, brash womanizer whose outdoor barbecues and loud music disturbed his new next-door neighbor Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer).
She’s a medical aide at the hospital, and, as it turns out, the fiancée of noble local doctor Ryan McCarthy (Tom Welling). It’s not long, however, before her initial—and hostile—meeting with Travis has turned into something erotic, especially since he turns out to be one of the local vets (the other being his widowed father Shep, played by Tom Wilkinson), and he goes out of his way to help her pregnant dog deliver her puppies. While poor Kevin is out of town at a clinic opening, Travis and Gabby, who’s apparently entirely stopped cracking the medical textbooks she’d previously been studying nonstop, are spending their nights together. And though she’s torn, torn, when Kevin returns, she dumps him for Travis. Of course, since she’s now found her true soul mate, her infidelity and cruelty are apparently forgivable lapses. The same rule of thumb seems to apply to Travis’ dumping of his longtime girlfriend Monica (Alexandra Daddario).
Cut to the present, when Travis and Gabby are happily married with two darling kids. Unfortunately, on a rainy night Gabby’s in a car crash (no spoiler here—it’s prominent in the trailer); and the remainder of the picture is devoted to the difficult decision that Travis had blabbed about in that trite opening monologue. But don’t worry; Sparks will solve his problem for him in a fashion that takes the superficiality of his treatment of a serious subject to astronomical heights (or more properly depths). The conclusion may make you think of an earlier moment in the picture when Dr. Shep, in order to protect a child from learning about death, simply replaces her defunct pet lizard with a live one. The legerdemain Sparks employs is no less a cop-out. And of course there’s a life-goes-on message delivered not only through the pregnancy of Travis’ always-supportive sister Stephanie (Maggie Grace), but via another incredibly banal monologue.
“The Choice” does raise some interesting questions. Why does only Travis speak in that dreadful drawl? Why does a capable actor like Wilkinson take such a demeaning role? Why does Travis read his kids—who are apparently about ten and nine—books that seem more appropriate for toddlers? How is it that Gabby and Travis’ dogs—which appear to be full-grown in 2005—appear not to have aged at all by 2015? And why does Travis, who seems pretty well-heeled by local standards, always refer to himself as poor (despite his handsome seaside abode) and to Gabby as a rich girl—a mistake that leads to an excruciatingly contrived scene with her parents?
The performances are, as usual with this sort of thing, of Lifetime Network caliber. Walker is earnest but lacks charisma (he was also boring in “In the Heart of the Sea”), and Palmer understandably has a hard time getting a hold on such a flighty character as Gabby. The others do what’s expected of them, which isn’t much, apart from Wilkinson, who should be embarrassed at putting so much effort into such schlock. The picture is filled with shots of various animals, but dogs predominate (appropriately, one might add). It’s a general rule of thumb that the quality of any movie is inversely proportional to the number of cute reaction shots of pooches: ”The Choice” abounds with them. They’re nicely shot by Alar Kivilo, but there are simply far too many—an observation that applies equally to the seemingly endless string of transition shots of the Carolina shore, sometimes with pelicans flying over the waves, and all accompanied by an insufferably tinkly score by Marcelo Zarvos.
A bit of investigation reveals that “The Choice” was Sparks’ thirteenth novel and the eleventh to be filmed. It’s also the first made by his own production company. All of this suggests that he intends not only an inexhaustible supply of books but an endless stream of screen adaptations of them too.
That’s a horrifying prospect that can only be derailed by your choice to skip “The Choice” and whatever Sparksian successors it might have.