Friday, February 5, 2016

The Choice: Choose something else

The Choice (2016) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for sensuality and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

If we’re gonna get treacle, it needs to be served better than this.

Movies based on Nicholas Sparks’ novels have become an annual nuisance, much like the return of hurricane season. His formulaic plots have grown tedious, his signature narrative gimmicks ripe for parody.

Gabby (Teresa Palmer) is happily attached to a longtime boyfriend. She doesn't even
really like her neighbor, Travis (Benjamin Walker). She nonetheless invites him over for
a romantic dinner. Can you guess what happens next?
The newest assault on our tear ducts, The Choice, offers all the same ingredients. A quaint, gorgeous setting, often coastal; check. Somebody at an emotional crossroads; check. An introductory romantic dinner in a quasi-isolated setting; check. Written messages exchanged in some droll or unusual manner; check.

And, of course, a tragedy of some sort — illness, accident, meteor strike — that Destroys Everything; double-check.

One’s willingness to buy into such sudsy melodrama depends on many factors, but we must acknowledge the necessity of a competent script and reasonably talented actors. The Choice has neither, which — coupled with the usual Sparks contrivances — makes it not only unwatchable, but hilariously awful. I’d love to see the ’bots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 take a poke at it.

Bryan Sipe’s screenplay is dreadful, his dialog the stuff of puerile TV soap operas. People simply don’t talk like this. Director Ross Katz doesn’t help matters, having no distinguishable talent that I can determine. He gets nothing but stiff and robotic performances from his stars, and a middle-school film student could improve upon the bland camera set-ups.

Most damningly, though, leading lady Teresa Palmer can’t act a lick. (Alternatively, and to maintain the shared blame, Katz can’t draw a performance out of her.) Her line readings are flat and howlingly awful, and her fallback “emotional reaction” — employed relentlessly — involves bobbing her head and flipping her hair: a dead giveaway to her (one hopes more successful) former career as a model.

Her introductory “meet cute” exchange with co-star Benjamin Walker is impressively awkward and forced. And Katz deemed it worthy of a “cut and print” command? He’s delusional.

Katz opens with a narrative voice-over — the refuge of a hack writer, and often the sign of a bad film to come — as Travis Shaw (Walker) races toward one of those “fateful choices,” he tells us, upon which one’s entire life can change. (Forgive me for stating the obvious, but isn’t that true of all choices?) He arrives at a hospital, armed with flowers, exchanges an oblique few words with an attending doctor (Tom Welling, another of this film’s thespic blank slates, as Ryan McCarthy), and then...

...we bounce back seven years. (Raise your hand if you saw that one coming.)

We meet Travis properly during a playful afternoon spent with friends in a stunningly gorgeous North Carolina Intracoastal Waterway setting, in and around the community of Wilmington, framed for maximum impact by cinematographer Alar Kivilo. Travis’ happily married companions tease him for his singleton ways; he’s a confirmed player too restless to remain attached to any woman, despite the repeated advances of on-again, off-again girlfriend Monica (Alexandra Daddario, recently seen in San Andreas).

Travis lives alone in a spacious 1940s Colonial that boasts a sprawling green lawn overlooking the Intracoastal: a view he often enjoys while seated quietly in the lone lawn chair adorning his yard, at all times accompanied by Moby, his fish-gut-chomping Australian Shepherd/Saint Bernard mix.

Travis’ loud music annoys new neighbor Gabby Holland (Palmer), a feisty medical student who has taken this isolated lodging in order to complete her studies, away from the distractions of longtime boyfriend Ryan (yes, the same Ryan). Travis’ noisy gatherings are bad enough, but Gabby really sees red when her dog, Molly, winds up pregnant; she immediately confronts Travis and accuses Moby.

Certainly not an unreasonable excuse for our two protagonists to meet, but Walker and Palmer make utter hash of this scene. Rarely has such already bad dialog been delivered so poorly.

Gabby’s snap judgment of Travis softens somewhat when she learns that he’s one of the local veterinarians, at a practice shared with his father, Shep (the always reliable Tom Wilkinson, and thank God for his presence). But it doesn’t matter; Travis and Monica soon bump into Gabby and Ryan, so Travis knows that she’s attached ... and she knows that he knows.

And yet ... so what? Ryan disappears for a few weeks at some conference, and Gabby wastes no time inviting Travis over for dinner ... and quite a dessert. Without giving Ryan a second thought, she slips between the sheets with the new guy. Repeatedly. Indeed, you’d think Ryan didn’t even exist.

Granted, all’s fair in love and war, but it would nice if Gabby looked even slightly guilty, or conflicted, or something. This would, at least, make her behavior more sympathetic. But wait; what am I saying? That would require actual acting chops from Palmer.

Much more annoying — and sloppy — is the fact that Gabby’s budding medical career just sorta falls by the wayside, never to be mentioned again. So much for women having it all, right?

As Travis and Gabby become passionately attached to one another, their shenanigans are observed by Travis’ perceptively wise younger sister, Steph (Maggie Grace, recognized from TV’s Lost, and as Liam Neeson’s kidnapped daughter in the Taken film series). Steph views Gabby as the woman capable of making Travis settle down, and she (Steph) couldn’t be more pleased.

I like Steph; she’s a well-constructed character, and Grace plays her persuasively. Daddario is equally good as the flirty, knows-she-can’t-have-him Monica. Too bad one of those actresses couldn’t have won the lead role.

Matters progress along predictable, Sparks-ian lines. Travis shares his “special place” with Gabby. Ryan returns; arguments ensue.

I’d really like to have seen how Gabby survived the subsequent restaurant dinner with Ryan and his parents, after a tearful confrontation with Travis ... but Katz doesn’t grant us that scene. (Probably just as well. Palmer couldn’t have played it.)

Then ... things resolve. Happiness and cheer. Family harmony. Until — cue some ominous notes from Marcelo Zarvos’ unremarkable score, and the setting of a windy, rain-swept night — utter catastrophe. O, cruel fate! Damn you, Nicholas Sparks, for once again yanking our chains like a gleefully vengeful puppeteer!


This is mawkish twaddle at its most contrived and ridiculous, and matters get even worse — even more insufferably manipulative — once we catch up to the prologue, and discover why Travis is charging into that hospital. The subsequent third act becomes insufferable, its climax an eye-rolling exercise in bad-bad-bad scripting.

Sipe can’t be blamed entirely; his adaptation merely follows — more or less — the template laid down by Sparks’ 2007 novel (which even his fans apparently regard as a lesser effort, to which I reply, No kidding).

Walker makes a reasonably appealing romantic lead, who tries his best with flimsy material and Palmer’s clumsy performance. He’s been better, most recently with In the Heart of the Sea, and he was a hoot as the grim, stake-wielding title character in 2012’s genre-bending Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Wilkinson’s every appearance is a breath of fresh air. The dogs, no surprise, are adorable.

Hardly enough to justify your hard-earned cash at the box office.

Thus far, 10 of Sparks’ 18 novels have been brought to the big screen, with varying degrees of success, and of course he’s still writing. I hate to think what that means, for our cinematic future...

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