Movie Review: 'The Choice' (2016)

Cheating is not romantic. If you agree with that premise, “The Choice” will more than likely leave you colder than a snowman in Antarctica. Since it is at the crux of Nicholas Sparks’ latest drama about people falling in love with each other and overcoming incredible odds to be together, there is little ground to invest in with his latest star-crossed pairing.

Based on the novel of the same name, comes the tale of how Gabby (Teresa Palmer), a studious and slightly uptight aspiring doctor falls for her laid back next-door-neighbor Travis (Benjamin Walker), a veterinarian with country sass to spare.

Since a lot of movie romances begin with its protagonists, loathing one another in seething contempt, before falling devotedly in love, “The Choice” doesn’t offer its audience a lot of surprises in the dynamic of how its lovers connect. The thing is, it’s clear from the onset all of their shared bluster is thinly veiled flirtation and nothing more.

The problem “The Choice” faces is that neither of its lead characters are particularly endearing in their own right. When our story begins, Gabby is dating Ryan (Tom Welling), a kindhearted doctor who treats her exceptionally well.

He has a close knit relationship with his parents and she gets along with them fantastically. There’s clearly no trouble in paradise. With Gabby and Ryan sharing similar interests, familial values and identical career paths, it’s markedly unclear as to why she would feel the need to stray.

What could possibly be missing in their relationship that she’s more attracted to Travis? He and Ryan are basically the same person with the exception that Travis has a sister (Ryan is an only child), nurses animals back to health instead of humans and constantly tells Gabby that she “bothers” him (more on that later). 

When Ryan goes out of town on a business trip, Travis puts on a full court press to pursue her. Of course, she relents and the audience is supposed to be rooting all of this on because they’re “meant to be together”. Right well, this is 2016 and self-indulgence is at the apex of human motivation so one should not be surprised if this noxious groundwork is supposed to be the foundation for a likable romance.

The movie makes a big point of how the commitment challenged Travis needs to work overtime to woo Gabby so he can prove himself to her. She apparently has to do nothing to earn his love in return.

She treats him poorly, frequently insults him and later rejects him without a second thought and the story still insists he is the one that needs to rise to the occasion as a pursuer. Well, there’s a fine line between flattering pursuit and hemorrhaging self-respect and Travis steps over that second threshold more than once.

What makes this Nicholas Sparks story so disappointing is that it comes on the heels of last year’s deeply touching adaptation of “The Longest Ride”, a two-pronged love story that featured not just one likable couple but two. The moral of that movie was strong and still managed to be compelling without any of its four protagonists behaving badly.

Sadly, Sparks pulls a page out of his most famous book for “The Choice” - “The Notebook”, wherein cheating puts a massive damper on the climax, ruining what was a relatively flawless romance. In case anyone missed it, Ally had not broken up with Lon when she reunited with Noah so when that uber romantic rain kiss took place, she was still committed to and cheating on Lon. Knowing that, charged the moment with a supremely sour taste and “The Choice” plays with that flavor for the entirety of its run.

While the romance leaves a lot to be desired, the filmmaking does not. Director Ross Katz eloquently renders the story, striking a fine balance between the need for several musical montages to mark the passage of time and a steady supply of comedic touches to underline the darker tones of its melodramatic third act. In terms of synergy, Katz nails all of the necessary components to set a romantic mood.

Dramatically aiding in that is the sparklingly picturesque scenery of its setting. Shot on location in beautiful Wilmington, North Carolina; “The Choice” greatly benefits from the scenic splendor of its locale as cinematographer Alar Kivilo magnificently captures the area’s sunny glow and brilliant beaches with a stellar eye.

As for the performances, Teresa Palmer and Benjamin Walker both give commendable turns that are individually sound. For whatever reason they’re singular exertions fail to translate in the chemistry department. The rapport is there, the humor is lively but the spark between them never ignites.

Between its leads, Walker has the hardest hill to climb as he's tasked with dialogue that is viscerally cringe-inducing. “Come and bother me”, “You bother me” and all of its iterations experience a recurrence that is frightening.

When he's not having to utter those terrible lines, Walker gets a chance to uninterruptedly prove he's a formidable actor, deftly handling the movie's comedy and drama with finesse. When others might have given up, he makes the most out of the role; adeptly carrying the last act on his own.

Faring better script-wise is Tom Wilkinson, who delivers another great performance as Travis’ sensible father. Maggie Grace and Alexandra Daddario similarly make strong impressions. Unfortunately for Grace, she’s saddled with a horribly regrettable wig that sharply distracts from her performance.

Like Walker, she mounts a valiant effort in trying to overcome a performance roadblock that's outside of her control. For his part, Tom Welling gives the movie a familiar and friendly edge as the jilted Ryan.

As many unfortunate choices as it makes in its storytelling, “The Choice” rakes in major points for presentation. Furthering its attributes is the fact it is leagues better than “Nights in Rodanthe”, the lowest point in the Sparks movie catalog to date. On a scale of 0 to 10 on the Nicholas Sparks sad-odometer, "The Choice" registers at about a 3.

Mainly because while it tries mightily to swirl and twirl its way past it, glossing over the story’s central betrayal with a dreamy montage and loquacious monologue to justify it - the bitter fact remains: these characters are not worth caring about. Rating: 5/10