“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!”
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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.