After a press screening, the film’s local publicist will ask for a reaction. After seeing THE CHOICE, and not wanting to dwell on the film’s myriad faults, I chose to respond by saying that I liked the pelicans. Majestic, improbable creatures that look like something from the Upper Triassic, in one of the film’s many scenic interludes, they flew just above the water, wings barely skimming the surface as they glided along in casually organized ranks. The cinematography for this moment was superb, the sky and water of the North Carolina coast, where the story is set, blending into an aetherial mother-of-pearl iridescence. It was, the best moment to be found in this corny and crushingly contrived effort.
THE CHOICE is based on a Nichols Sparks novel, and for those familiar with his work, no more needs to be said. They are wildly popular, treacly romances selling in the millions, which is good for the publishing industry. I take heart from that fact because the films based on his books have suffered a precipitous tailspin since A WALK TO REMEMBER was brightened by Mandy Moore and THE NOTEBOOK with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. Even DEAR JOHN had Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried to elevate the dullness of a formulaic story. With THE CHOICE, however, we are in very murky territory, with only those pelicans, and a fine performance by Tom Wilkinson to help us muddle through.
Our young lovers are Travis (Benjamin Walker) and Gabby (Teresa Palmer), who, of course, don’t hit it off at first. She’s a medical student newly arrived in what she hopes is a quiet spot where she can study for the boards. He’s the next-door neighbor playing his music too loud during and after a barbeque at his house. She also suspects his dog of getting her dog in the family way, but more about that later. She yells at him. He is smug and condescending. His sister (Maggie Grace), who shows up during the altercation, unaccountably decides that Gabby is Travis’ soul mate. And that would be the sum of both character and plot development. The rest is just so much window dressing.
Gabby has a doctor boyfriend (Tom Welling), but after arguing with Travis, she keeps noticing how very nice he looks without his shirt as he is working on his boat or just hanging out in the yard. Travis, despite the return of his on-again off-again girlfriend (Alexandra Daddario), keeps noticing how attractive Gabby is in the various lightweight summer outfits she sports as the comes and goes from her house. One of those trips is to take her pregnant pooch to the local veterinary clinic, where, surprise surprise, Travis works with his father (Wilkinson). Truce called, picnic with friends taken when Gabby’s boyfriend conveniently goes out of town on business, and, lo and behold, there’s nooky on the kitchen table and an emotional connection that neither of them can fight.
Leave aside for a moment that when Gabby’s dog gives birth, they are to puppies that appear to be, at a minimum, a month old. Leave aside for a moment that in the small town where Gabby and Travis live, word about their romance doesn’t get back to the boyfriend’s parents, one of whom works in the hospital where Gabby is also working and where everyone else seems to know about it. Leave us instead focus on the real problem here. That would be the zero chemistry between Walker and Palmer. He, who essayed a delightfully revisionist Lincoln in ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER, starts out with the charm of a calculating, womanizing jerk and never gets past it. There is, for some of us, only so much that looking that good in a pair of jeans can overcome. Let me put it this way, when he gets punched in the face, there is something perversely satisfying about it. As for Gabby, putatively a strong-willed woman with iron resolve and high intelligence, she’s spunky in spurts with a one-note look of askance in response to Travis’ oily come-ons, but essentially she’s a doily of a doormat willing to whip up a meal in 20 minutes for her new beau instead of studying. There is a horrifying scene in which her family and friends essentially gang up on her in order to force her acceptance of Travis’ marriage proposal, because, apparently, this smart woman cannot be trusted to make her own decisions about what she wants. A particularly ironic idea considering that the opening narration is all about making choices. Hence the title.
THE CHOICE, sophomorically acted and dully directed, goes the extra mile to alienate us by celebrating those fine womanly virtues and values of the early part of the last century even as it gently chides us all, as a culture, for leaving them behind.