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.
SPOILER ALERTS LEFT AND RIGHT! (BUT IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THESE MOVIES BY NOW, WHADDAYA WANT FROM ME?!)
Who can forget “Message in a Bottle” (1999), with Kevin Costner as a widower who also loses his son before the dang movie is over?
Then there’s “Dear John” (2010), with Channing Tatum as a Special Forces soldier who is gravely wounded, two characters with forms of autism, and another character with terminal lymphoma.
And everyone remembers Ryan Gosling’s Noah and Rachel McAdams’ Allie kissing in the rain in “The Notebook” (2004), but in classic Sparksian fashion, in modern times, Allie was suffering from dementia, and save for one lucid interlude where she remembered everything, she had no memories of their romance and didn’t not recognize Noah.
From “Safe Haven” to “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.
Set on the coast of Beaufort, N.C., “The Choice” might have set the all-time record for water-based establishing shots. In transition after transition, director Ross Katz lavishes the camera on inlets and ocean. The water at sunrise, the water at midday, the water bathed in moonlight, the water in time-lapse, the water, the water, the water. As an enticement to visit beautiful North Carolina on your next vacation, it’s immensely effective. As a crutch to take us from moment to moment, it becomes ludicrous.
Benjamin Walker (“In the Heart of the Sea,” “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter”) plays Travis Parker, a dashing and cocky veterinarian who apparently spends just about all of his free time hanging out with his attractive, married friends in extended beer commercials. They go boating, they barbecue, they go the county fair. Travis has an on-again, off-again girlfriend (Alexandra Daddario), 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. Why, 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 makeout 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 to make us go, “Awwww…”
Nearly every plot “surprise” in “The Choice” is so obvious one can’t help but chuckle at the foreshadowing. 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, himself a veterinarian; Maggie Grace as Travis’ sister and best friend; and Alexandra Daddario as Travis’ sometimes girlfriend, who has been patiently waiting for him to commit since they were in high school. 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 a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, 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, sappier than a pancake breakfast.
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.
The timeline wouldn’t always fit, but so many Nicholas Sparks characters occupy the same general area. 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.
Lionsgate presents a film directed by Ross Katz and written by Bryan Sipe, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content and some thematic issues). Opens Friday at local theaters.