Nobody, and I mean nobody, cranks out more romance tragedy porn than Nicholas Sparks.
Sparks writes the novels and Hollywood makes the movies, and just about every time out, you get your sun-dappled Carolina romance and your PG-13 sex scenes and your crusty but lovable elderly folk and your cute reaction shots of kids and dogs — and somebody’s gonna wind up in a coma or revealing a tragic past or otherwise looking death in the eye.
From “The Notebook” to “Safe Haven,” from “The Lucky One” to “A Walk to Remember,” if you fall in love in a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, odds are you’re going to wind up sucking air from a breathing tube, visiting a grave, lamenting a horrible episode from your past or being separated from your lover because LIFE IS CRUEL.
“The Choice” is classic Sparks, and by that I mean it’s a mediocre, well-photographed, undeniably heart-tugging, annoyingly manipulative and dramatically predictable star-crossed romance.
Benjamin Walker (“In the Heart of the Sea,” “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter”) plays Travis Parker, a dashing and cocky veterinarian who apparently spends all his free time hanging out with his attractive married friends in extended beer commercials. They go boating, they barbecue, they go to the county fair. Travis has an on-again, off-again girlfriend, but he can never quite commit.
Enter Gabby (Teresa Palmer), Travis’ new next-door neighbor, a brilliant medical student who just wants to study while listening to classical music. In the Meet Cute to defy all Meet Cutes, Gabby stomps over to complain about Travis’ loud rock ’n’ roll music — and Travis’ dog knocking up her dog. The nerve!
Away we go. Gabby has a nice-guy doctor boyfriend named Ryan, who is so handsome and physically imposing he looks like he could have played Clark Kent on “Smallville.” (That’s my way of saying he’s played by Tom Welling, who was Clark Kent on “Smallville.”)
When Ryan is conveniently called away for a month to open his family’s new hospital in Atlanta, Travis and Gabby stop the bickering and commence with the passionate romance that includes the obligatory clear-the-dishes-off-the-countertop make-out session; Travis sharing something with Gabby he’s never shared with anyone, ever, and Gabby learning about the tragedy in Travis’ past. And puppies! Shameless use of puppies.
Nearly every plot “surprise” is so obvious one can’t help but chuckle. Travis and Gabby spend a passionate month together, sharing nearly every moment — and yet Travis is stunned when he finally learns the truth about Gabby’s background. By that point, even his dog had probably figured it out.
At times I surrendered to the comfort-food warmth of the film. It’s difficult to resist Tom Wilkinson as Travis’ widower dad; Maggie Grace as Travis’ sister and best friend, and Alexandra Daddario as Travis’ sometime girlfriend. Just about everyone in “The Choice” is really nice. We totally forgive Gabby for cheating on Ryan, because she’s so … nice. These things happen, right?
Of course, this being Nicholas Sparks, we know something very, very, very bad is going to happen, and, sure enough, when it happens it’s really bad, and let’s just leave it at that. The last half-hour of “The Choice” drags on and on and on, milking the melodrama every step along the way.
Teresa Palmer has a winning presence, even when she’s stuck with some subpar dialogue. She should be a bigger star. Benjamin Walker, a good actor, never really hits his stride in this role, either as the arrogant bachelor or the teary-eyed romantic.
So many Nicholas Sparks characters occupy the same general area that I’d like to see a movie where they all get together for a Tragedy-Off. My money’s on the “Dear John” team. But it could be close.