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If you’re a fan of films based on Nicholas Sparks novels, like Dear John, A Walk to Remember, and others, you will likely be completely satisfied with his latest mushy romantic offering, The Choice. It doesn’t measure up to The Notebook, which remains the high-water mark as far as Sparks adaptations go, but it is exactly the movie you expect. On the other hand, those of you who find these films tedious and insufferable, this is exactly the movie that you expect.
For most of The Choice, it’s fine. Sure, the plot is saccharine, emotionally manipulative, and formulaic to the extreme — if you have even an inkling of the plot in advance, it’s possible to predict exactly how events unfold every step of the way. But the leads have enough chemistry, the hero is charming enough, and the pace is brisk enough. If you’re in the mood for a sappy romance with zero subtext — the dialogue surface-level only and the characters talk like people only do in movies — you can probably do worse. You can also, of course, do better. It’s pap, but, at least for the first two acts, it’s marginally palatable pap.
Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer) is a spunky medical student who gets more than she bargained for when she moves in next door to local lothario Travis Shaw (Benjamin Walker). He’s handsome and flirty and no one ever says no to him, so, of course, he falls head over heels for the first woman who doesn’t immediately succumb to his shtick. Their meet-cute involves dogs and Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.” There are complications, however. She has a fiancé (Tom Welling), he doesn’t want a serious relationship, but they embark on a whirlwind romantic tryst full of flirting, “innocent” romantic dinners, and, I shit you not, holding hands on the beach. This is junior high-level melodrama.
When the twist hits — and let’s be honest, this is a Nicholas Sparks movie, so there will be a twist — things hit a wall, and any modest amount of goodwill The Choice built up instantly evaporates. I won’t give it away, but it’s not much of a secret as it figures prominently in the trailers and it’s given away on the back flap of the book.
Up to this point, The Choice is a moderately engaging love story full of the obvious problems and too-easy solutions. The characters can be annoying, but, at least for the first two acts, it’s marginally palatable. The last third of the movie, however, devolves into a dreary slog full of on-the-nose music and sad characters staring sadly into the sad horizon while being sad. The movie ties a sadness anchor around your neck and kicks it overboard, forcing you to drown.
And then it gets worse. The overall structure is flirt, romance, complication, romance, tragedy, miracle. And the miracle is so infuriating, it may or may not make you want to light things on fire.
Structurally, The Choice feels a bit misshapen. There’s so much space and emphasis spent on the beginnings of Gabby and Ben’s relationship, that’s what the audience becomes most involved in. It also takes up the bulk of the film. But just when the story appears to have run its course, there’s a huge chunk of life and time glossed over in a quick montage to get to the sadness. It’s a sudden, jarring transition where The Choice is, out of nowhere, a very different movie tonally and thematically. The story jumps from one place to another, and there’s a middle step missing.
Set in the gorgeous North Carolina hamlet of Beaufort, The Choice is at least quite pretty to look at. Director Ross Katz (Adult Beginners) uses the coastal setting to decent effect. Damn near every shot involves sun-dappled water, reedy grass gently blowing in the wind, and Teresa Palmer and Benjamin Walker gawking at the moon and the stars. There isn’t much else in the way of visual stylistics, but the scenery’s nice. When things go south for Gabby and Ben there is some overly serious, heavy-handed imagery just to twist the knife—one shot of two empty chairs sitting side-by-side facing the water is particularly hilarious.
Taken on its own terms, The Choice may be the most successful movie of the year. It is precisely what it sets out to be and nothing more — it’s a sappy, melodramatic love story, and that’s all. This is the cinematic equivalent of a box of chocolates and a peck on the cheek, empty calories and not much more, but if that’s what you’re in the market for, it delivers well enough. At best, this is something best watched from the comfort of your own couch, not a movie you need to rush out see. Fans of Nicholas Sparks will be pleased, but a great many of you will find this monotonous and cloying.