It’s hard to imagine missing the presence of all those abusive fiancés, jealous boyfriends, and classist fathers that have peppered Nicholas Sparks film adaptations up to this point, actually pining for that rogues gallery of diaboli ex machina. But in their absence, Ross Katz’s The Choice finds literally nothing to fill the space. It’s a losing game to figure out which Sparks adaptation is the worst, but this one certainly feels last among pitiful equals. Most of these films say, in cinematic terms, nothing so complicated as “roses are red.” This one just points to a garden and shrugs.
Veterinarian Travis Parker (Benjamin Walker, suggesting here a younger, sexier Joe Flaherty) is the cornpone rake next door to Teresa Palmer’s uptight medical student, Gabby Holland. Even before you have time to speculate that she won’t have to repurchase monogrammed bath towels, the film positions the pair as a case study in opposites attracting, so long as you ignore their both being beautiful, wealthy, white, dog-loving, outdoorsy young professionals in the medical industry who—given that trademark Sparkian flashback structure—were totally into vinyl before it was cool. And both keep friends who are prone to sharing, while on yacht excursions around their small coastal town, such observations as “I love boating.”
To ramp up the romantic friction, Gabby is characterized as a silver-spooner along with her actual, and not recreational, boyfriend, Ryan (Tom Welling). Travis, on the other hand, is a dad bod waiting to emerge, a slothful, drawling representation of Sparks’s blurred line between charm and harassment. That’s the setup; the follow-through is love, and only love. Travis and Gabby being in love is, in terms of plot, the only element conveyed for the rest of the milquetoast drama, aside from the cagily hidden incident that’s intended to justify the flashback, but even that episodic inevitability doesn’t call into question the characters’ painfully simplistic motivations.
It’s unfair to single out the one thing a film had going for it as the primary cause for its failure, but the inability for Walker, so reportedly electrifying when he was working on stage in New York, to serve as a defibrillator for the flat-lining proceedings clarifies why he has yet to translate his apparently considerable thespian muscles into a fledgling movie career. Presumably aiming for a revelation along Ryan Gosling lines, Walker makes a scowly show of burrowing through grief, and by the end of the film, saps will undoubtedly start fantasizing about using his sweet tears as lip gloss.
But digging deep into shallowness requires someone wily and strategic like Gosling, who deftly balanced commitment and contempt in The Notebook with Sirkian skill. Walker trusts his material entirely too much, and his performance falls down with The Choice around him. (I don’t mean to shortchange Palmer’s team-player performance, but these films objectify their male leads to the point where the culpability of their female counterparts is extraneous. Maria Bamford could’ve played Gabby to the same ends.) It could be that all other Sparks adaptations managed to, if not hide, distract from their inherent jejunosity—to borrow from Woody Allen—through cardboard villains, but The Choice doesn’t give viewers the, ahem, choice but to contemplate the banality of virtue.