Film Review: The Choice

Unendurably dull-minded, sentimental soap features good-looking actors who give it their best shot.
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Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks (a publisher’s darling), The Choice is a bloated deposit at the bottom of a dark, airless and murky netherworld that brings together the most torturous elements of old-fashioned soaps, fairytales and faith-based films. It’s as deadly and protracted as one might expect, running a little more than 90 minutes but feeling like four long, long hours.

The mood is set from the get-go with a portentous voiceover prologue from the lead (Benjamin Walker), letting the viewer know what the film is about (as if the title doesn’t make that clear) while evoking the banal philosophy of virtually any TV psychologist: “I’m going to tell you the secret of life…every path you take leads to another choice.”

Oh boy.

What’s even more disheartening than the aesthetic—and one uses that word advisedly—is the enormous audience for this pabulum, to judge by the millions of books Sparks has sold, eleven of which (including the latest) have been morphed into films, some star-studded (e.g., Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, Paul Newman and Robin Wright in Message in a Bottle), generating big box-office receipts. The acting is so beyond the material, and that’s true in this one too, besotted in marital/family crises, death, terminal cancer, car crashes and hurricanes.

Like the others, The Choice is set on the coast of North Carolina. The seaside scenery is exquisite, though somehow full moons, starry skies, waves lapping against the shore, and birds in flight (lots of lingering images of birds in flight) quickly become tedious within the context of the film.

The story is told as a flashback and opens in the present with Travis Parker (Walker) charging down a hospital hall, flowers in hand, as his voiceover intones on and on about having to make horrible “choices.” A moment later, he’s crouched at the bedside of a young woman on life support. Clutching her hand, voice weepy and tremulous, he cries out, “Come back to me, bother me.”

The next scene takes place “Seven Years Earlier.”

Playboy Travis, with no shortage of nubile young women lining up for him, is hosting a barbecue and blasting music on his beachfront property when a new neighbor, Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer), a self-assured medical student, storms out of her house demanding that he lower the music.

There’s fierce friction. Aside from the noise Travis is making, Gabby also accuses him of not controlling his dog, who has impregnated hers. Shortly thereafter, Gabby brings her pooch to a local vet, only to discover the vet is none other than Travis, who co-runs the clinic with his father (Tom Wilkinson), a widower of seven years who still mourns his wife and celebrates her birthday each year.

Everyone in this film has a “story.” Travis also has a lonely sister (Maggie Grace) with whom he has a close relationship and an ex-girlfriend (Alexandra Daddario) who wants to get back with him, while Gabby (whose personal history is shrouded in mystery) is practically engaged to the well-heeled Dr. Ryan McCarthy (Tom Welling). Yet the sexual tension between her and Travis is palpable, and when Ryan is out of town she and Travis launch into a hot and heavy affair interspersed with lofty discussions about God, purpose and meaning.

This is a universe where everything happens for a reason, though it may not be immediately evident and it’s a lesson that needs to be learned. Also, everyone is remarkably attractive, accomplished (yet sensitive), and lives in lovely, well-appointed homes.

The direction by Ross Katz, who has one previous directing credit, is certainly acceptable enough and clearly passes muster with Sparks, who serves as producer on this film, as he has on most of his others.

To what degree the creative team believes the views and hokey sentimentality espoused here is up for grabs. Perhaps there is no manipulation or cynicism at play. That’s the most frightening thought.

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