Film Review: ‘The Choice’

the-choice
Courtesy of Lionsgate

“Now pay attention, because I’m about to tell you the secret of life.” These would be hard opening lines for any film to live up to, but when spoken at the beginning of “The Choice” — the latest, and quite possibly worst, tissue-thin weepie to issue forth from the Nicholas Sparks page-to-screen assembly line— the gulf between what’s promised and what’s delivered is wide enough to be spotted from space. Beginning as a merely mediocre retread of standard Sparksian tropes, veering off into self-parody around the hour-mark, and finally concluding with one of the most brazenly cynical climaxes recently committed to film, “The Choice” presents audiences with a fairly easy decision at the multiplex.

In spite of his status as a critical punching bag, Sparks is usually a successful storyteller. At least, successful stories have been told with his assistance. Nick Cassavetes’ 2004 adaptation of “The Notebook,” to cite the most obvious example, tells a strong story successfully. Those who faulted its contrivances, its sentimentality or its heartstring tugging missed the point — in a Sparks story, those are features, not bugs. But director Ross Katz’s “The Choice,” which mimics “The Notebook” in everything but meaningful conflict, believable characters, style and emotional honesty, is a very unsuccessful story.

Where does it go so wrong? It’s not the hospital-set prologue, in which our narrator brings flowers to a mystery woman before the film flashes back seven years. (The phrase “hospital-set prologue” is roughly synonymous with “Nicholas Sparks movie.”) Nor is it the characters, stock types drawn broadly enough to allow maximum viewer projection. It’s not even the aggressively wholesome setting along the scenically sun-dappled North Carolina coastline, where modern, smartphone-owning characters in the 21st century measure time in “two-and-a-half shakes” and respond to accusations that a single lady is “crushin’ on you” with a fulsome “Hogwash!”

Nor is the fault with star Benjamin Walker, who at best manages to evoke a Tar Heel Eric Bana as protagonist Travis Shaw. Travis has a pretty good life: a cottage whose lawn opens onto the sea, a faithful dog, a boat, a motorcycle, a job as a trainee veterinarian at his father’s clinic, abs on which a waiter could grind peppercorns, and a gorgeous on-and-off girlfriend named Monica (Alexandra Daddario, deserving of better), who brings him beers on the porch and dutifully disappears whenever her presence might prove inconvenient. A ladies’ man of the most harmless caliber, Travis throws regular barbecues with a clutch of good-looking buddies, who together resemble a gathering of commercial extras, having recently aged out of Budweiser spots, killing time until Cialis comes calling.

His life is marginally complicated by the arrival of a new neighbor, Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer), an upper-crust, flustery medical student who storms over to complain about Travis’ music. Travis offers teasing banter, Gabby responds with huffy, wide-eyed exasperation, and Travis’ salty sister (Maggie Grace) wastes no time in telling him, “You’re in trouble.” Gabby does have a steady boyfriend in local doctor Ryan (Tom Welling), but when he conveniently skips out of state for several weeks (months? years?) on business, all bets are off.

So far, so Sparks. But without a single memorable exchange or arresting image — aside from d.p. Alar Kivilo’s postcard-ready shots of the Carolina coast — this romance trudges through the motions. As adapted by scripter Bryan Sipe (whose upcoming “Demolition” promises much better), Travis and Gabby’s flirtations are vacuously slack, and neither actor possesses the magnetism to power through them. At times, their interplay resembles a pair of improv actors stuck in a pickle, volleying the same lines back and forth waiting for the other to give them something to work with, and one waits impatiently for a line of any consequence to emerge.

Or, for that matter, an actual conflict to arise. Ryan and Monica finally do arrive back on the scene, but the romantic quadrangle is resolved with comical speed. It’s not until the final act, when we learn the identity of the woman Travis is visiting in the hospital, that any significant stakes are raised, and it’s here that the film stumbles most spectacularly. It would be impossible to explain exactly how craven the ending is without spoiling it completely; but in an earlier scene, the film seems to offer a pre-emptive defense of the trick it’s going to pull, if not a mea culpa.

Midway through, Travis spots his father (Tom Wilkinson, deserving of much, much better) in the backroom of the pet clinic, discreetly replacing a dead lizard with another, identical-looking live one. Travis calls him out on it, at which point his father offers him a choice: Would he rather walk out into the waiting room and explain to a sweet 10-year-old girl that her beloved pet reptile has bought the farm? Or would he rather err on the side of well-meaning dishonesty, and emerge heroically with the little lizard appearing to have made a miraculous recovery? Travis opts for the latter.

That may be a defensible decision when it comes to little girls’ geckos. But when that same principle is applied to storytelling, as it very much is here, the narrative descends into the most manipulative variety of kitsch. This film trusts its audience no better than Travis trusts a 10-year-old’s maturity, and if viewers don’t find that at least a little offensive, they should.

That’s hardly the only instance of kitsch on display. There are dog reaction shots, cute closeups of puppies in baskets, night skies that glow like college-dorm blacklight posters, and a sequence where our two lovers seek shelter from a sudden rain shower in a gospel church whose harmoniously multiracial choir sings Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright.” Only once does Katz nail a moment of swoon-worthy romantic abandon, in an early sex scene, but even then it’s Mark E. Garner’s cozy production design and a nicely-timed National needle-drop that provide much of the heavy lifting.

Film Review: 'The Choice'

Reviewed at Real D screening room, Beverly Hills, Feb. 2, 2016. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production

A Lionsgate release and presentation of a Nicholas Sparks Productions, Safran Company, POW! production. Produced by Nicholas Sparks, Peter Safran, Theresa Park. Executive producer, Hans Ritter.

Crew

Directed by Ross Katz. Screenplay, Bryan Sipe, from the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Camera (color), Alar Kivilo; editors, Joe Klotz, Lucy Donaldson; music, Marcelo Zavros; music supervisor, Marguerite Phillips; production designer, Mark E. Garner; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; art director, William G. Davis; sound, Larry Long; supervising sound editor, Steven Iba; re-recording mixer, Chris David; special effects supervisor, David Beavis; assistant director, Chad Graves; casting, Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani.

With

Benjamin Walker, Teresa Palmer, Maggie Grace, Alexandra Daddario, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Welling, Jesse C. Boyd, Brad James, Noree Victoria.

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  1. Nev says:

    Andrew Barker. Wow. Cynical and lacking depth. This (movie) is not in your lexicon of emotional reality. I understand the limitations one can have which lends itself to such a review. We all (can) have our own corner of reality we live in. This review is revealing…more about you than the actual film. In fact, while reading this I was surprised. Flat out surprised by the entire thing. Just don’t trust your judgement when it comes to film making and can see clearly that it comes from your own personal demons/limitations – intimately. I would recommend some serious personal review. Self-reflection to be more exact. I mean that honestly. No snarky-ness. No sass. I’m flat out serious and mean it in a most constructive way. Good luck Brother

  2. Ronald Byam says:

    I thought it was the most romantic movie I ever saw. The characters were excellent a great story.

  3. Karen Peck says:

    I loved this movie. It was so much better than the book. Just like the movie Notebook was so much better than the book. If I would have read the book first for either one, I may not have wanted to watch the movie.

  4. This was the dumbest movie I’ve ever seen.

  5. Vail says:

    I “read” (listened to the audiobook) The Choice when I was stuck in bed sick last year. So the first thing that bothered me, and this seems oddly true of so many book-to-movie deals, was what was left out and what was added in. There was no character development in the film We didn’t see how close Travis was with his tight group of friends nor Gabby’s battles at work (she is a Physician’s Assistant in the book, not a student) . Shy characters who were endearingly so became gregarious. A lot of the spunk in Travis’s sister in the book seemed to have been surgically removed and added to Gabby.

    The reasons there was a “choice” (discussions about DNRs, etc) were not in the film. At all. So that robbed the story for me.

    And what was with the gazebo?
    I was honestly surprised at the end of the book – the book opens on a man who is clutching papers, and I for one thought that they were divorce papers. So I didn’t see the 3rd act coming. Of course, since I had listened to the really well-read audiobook, I knew what the choice he had to make was going to be, but still there was no “will he or won’t he?”

    I just watched the movie. It was really disappointing. The acting was good, I thought the actress who played Gabby was great, it was clear that any man would fall for her. Travis…. not so much, but I think due to the aforementioned lack of character development. I really do recommend the book. And if you spend 5-6 days a week with a migraine, unable to read books, get the audio book.

  6. Libby says:

    I really liked “The Choice”. Watched it 3 times! Everyone who watched it with me loved it too. Big tears shed by all…even the guys! Maybe the critic thought it wasn’t slick enough, but people do like movies with real human feelings.

  7. Margaret Brothwell says:

    Loved the movie and went right out and.baught it.

  8. Leo says:

    Most of Spark’s movies are about forbidden love, cheating or adultery. Why would anyone praise his work? These novels only encourage cheating as long as their is a good reason, “true love.” No wonder divorces are so high nowadays! Stop putting false ideas into every girl’s ahead about how a man should feel, look, act, and treat a woman. Sparks plays on your emotions and all reason goes out the window, hence: all the thoughtless cheating parts. You can’t ok adultery by adding sad death scenes. Bad stories promote bad things and eventually encourage you act on your emotions and put all reason aside.

  9. Iranga says:

    This is not a love story..it is a story of a whore..gabby is a whore.. Her ex had good prospectus on their future and he worked on it while gabby sleeps with another who has nothing.most of these things happen to guys who like tostudyand work hard..so this is a story about a whore…

  10. Katherine says:

    I LOVED The Choice. I don’t think it was the worst Nicholas Sparks movie. I thought it was one of the best, if not the best. The characters were “people next door” types and believable. It was a little predictable, but most love stories are. I think this critic is a bit too critical. It was definitely worth seeing. The only reason I found this review is because I was looking to see if it was available yet to purchase?

  11. Sandra B says:

    Critics are people who express their own personal opinion which is not worth the page they’re printed on.

  12. I have watched this movie several times and I loved it. I love reading all Nicolas Sparks novels. The movies are not exact to the books. But Hay!! Their pretty close. They have a great connection. Travis and Gabby, I thought it was great. I love, Love stories.

  13. thonguyen86 says:

    interesting movie , thanks for review

  14. Sophie says:

    I think everyone missed the timeline. He was at the hospital and then they go back 7 years when he first met her. Well, I don’t know about you, but those kids look like they are in middle school. LOL. That means that she would have already been pregnant when they met. Just sayin…. The rest… was ehh.. It was too much like the notebook, but not as good. I love the notebook and this… was no where near it.

  15. Mr. Smith says:

    I saw this movie about a week after it came out and i liked it. Yes, it has a lot a differences from the book which is to be expected. Here are things people fail to realize about it and because they fail to see this they don’t know as much about the world as they think. 1. a ladies man can be anyone. a rich person or a man who works a regular 9-5 job but is very very charming and women eat it up not knowing he’s a ladies man. 2 just because Travis has barbecues with friend doesn’t mean her wasn’t ladies man before he met gabby people can change. and then there is big one Travis loves gabby so much that he wasn’t willing to take her feeding tube out and stuff because he had such a strong belief that she would wake up from the coma which she did. Finally 3. look at the movie A Walk To Remember, Landon himself was a bad boy drinking, running from the cops and getting in trouble at school. He changed and it was a good change just like Travis he was a ladies man but he changed all of that when he met gabby and they got to know each other and he fell for her. love can change a person. if someone love a person enough they will change of their own accord for that person which of course is what Travis did for Gabby of course.

  16. John Ellis aka Travelingman26 says:

    Whoever wrote the critique for “The Choice”, is a moron who shouldn’t be writing at all!!! He should go and work at cleaning the manure out of farm animal stalls, that person is better suited for that task!

  17. Steve says:

    Andrew, I would suggest that maybe you should write reviews for the local middle school plays, hopefully you could impress them. I know it’s not the greatest film I’ve ever seen, and most people can see the little flaws here and there, but it’s a feel good movie and I think we could use more of them. I don’t normally read reviews, but after I saw the movie I wanted to find out more about it and then I saw your brilliance. It reminds me to never read another review. You’re just a sad wannabe writer!

    • VC says:

      Your comment is what’s sad. I’m a woman, and this movie not only made “lol” out at the movietheater, I am actually ashamed to be a woman at this point. If this ehat the filmindustry thinks we like, well ,I am offended. Very much so. This is all of the rom-coms ever made thrown into a blender. Puppies? And babies? And sex? And lovetriangles? And not one,but 2 happy endings(once before come,once after) And a coma/sleeping beauty bs? Aaaaaaand the moon, the stars, the island, the nights, the beach,the summer, the gazebo, en letters??? Are you kidding me? This is not only a bad, bad movie that seems to have sprung from a 13-year old girl’s amagination from 1950’s; this is an offense to all romcoms, and women like them. And I do get the feel-good thing you’re referring to. I’ve seen Sparks’ cowboy flicl before this one. It wasn’t easy, but I made myself lile it somehow. For that exact feel-good vibe. But this. This is….just so,so bad. I thought Twilight saga was cheesy and over the top corny! Nope, this one takes the cake.
      Glad it makes you feel better, but that doesn’t mean you can defend it as a decent cinematic piece. Oh no.

  18. mvcrockett says:

    All you commenters crack me up. I mean you’re kidding me right? This movie was shit. He doesn’t even scrape the bottom of the barrel.

  19. Linda says:

    This critic needs to hang up his shoes and never write or go to a movie again. Not all movies have to be these horrible sci if movies or Gordy killers. . This critic must have a personal problem. Nice to go to a feel good movie with a good ending for. Change. As life should be

  20. cadavra says:

    Maybe the next Sparks adaptation could be done by Mel Brooks: “Hold on there, Mister! I just swept the floor and now sand you’re tracking in from the beach? What, were you raised by wolves?” Now THAT’S a picture I’d go see!

  21. DanaAlyss says:

    I saw this movie. I also have seen all the other NS films because I work in this industry and I also write movie reviews, and this was my favorite NS film since The Notebook. You clearly sound very bitter about such movie. Maybe you should ask for someone less cynical to cover these types of films from now on.

  22. Kara Harris says:

    Andrew– you are certainly a romantic! I loved spending time in Wilmington tonight and am quite satisfied with the film- I laughed, I cried, I was entertained, and found the chemistry between the leads quite believable. But then again I rarely agree with movie critics- I am not afraid to enjoy movies that won’t make the awards show rounds.

  23. John Miller says:

    Hard to imagine a Nicholas Sparks movie getting shellacked in the reviews! :-)

  24. 85wzen says:

    Straight to Lifetime for such Drivel!

  25. Bryan says:

    “A ladies’ man of the most harmless caliber, Travis throws regular barbecues with a clutch of good-looking buddies, who together resemble a gathering of commercial extras, having recently aged out of Budweiser spots, killing time until Cialis comes calling.”

    A line this good seems wasted on a movie such as this.

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