In the soft-focus universe of romance novelist Nicholas Sparks, North Carolina is not located south of Virginia. It’s a mythical plane, a modern Elysian Fields, a gold-hued Eden where all the steaks are grilled to perfection, sea-glass wind chimes clink delicately in the caress of a Southern breeze, and the beachfront vistas are screensaver-caliber. Of course, just as the pair of grabby nudists got themselves thrown out of Eden, tragedy must too visit the coastal hamlet of Beaufort, N.C. that sets the scene for director Ross Katz’s new adaptation of Sparks’ novel The Choice. But even then, our romantic lead’s dark night of the soul has the good fortune of taking place on an immaculately moonlit beach, beside an aged tree growing in just the perfect shape for a tire swing. North Carolina isn’t where you go to retire; it’s where you go after you die.
But within the most lovingly shot commercial ever produced for the Wrightsville Beach board of tourism, there unfolds a schematic courtship between two humdrum leads, neither of which has whatever magic it is that endears romance characters to audiences. Maybe it’s that leading man Benjamin Walker’s feature are so nondescript and unmemorable that watching him creates a weird facsimile of face-blindness, or maybe it’s that approximately 70 percent of the dialogue consists of one character making a statement, and the other character playfully repeating it back in a cutesy sarcastic tone. Katz creates a world where a person could happily spend the remainder of eternity, but then forces the viewer to follow around two people who would probably be best left to do their own thing.
Travis (Walker) knows what kind of man he is, and so do we: a good ol’ country boy who likes his boat, his brews, and his buds, who has love to give but fears the vulnerability that comes with opening himself up. Travis is like the cop-on-the-edge-who-doesn’t-play-by-the-rules of guys falling in love, which is to say that he’s a reanimation of a very specific collection of clichés. A character as clearly and predictably outlined as Travis needs a distaff counterpart to match. Thankfully, feisty med student Gabby (Teresa Palmer) lives — where else? — right next door. Their tentative coupling begins with love notes ferried from picture-perfect beach house to picture-perfect beach house by puppies, so a taste for high levels of refined glucose is an absolute must for anyone hoping to make it to the end credits.
In the first hour, Katz makes their gravitation toward one another feel as natural and inevitable as the waves that ceaselessly whisper in the background. Some obstacles threaten to separate them, but Gabby’s boyfriend, Dr. Ryan “Dead Weight” McCarthy (Tom Welling) can be cut loose without too much trouble. In the magical confines of North Carolina, love cannot be denied. It hangs thick in the air and fills everyone’s chest, pairing a lonely old veterinarian (Tom Wilkinson) with one of his repeat clients, and assigning Travis’ brassy sister (Maggie Grace) a husband and child with a single edit.
The title choice may appear to refer to the emotional tug-of-war that Dr. Dead Weight and Travis play with Gabby’s heart, but that’s all resolved in the first 40 minutes or so. The real choice concerns, you guessed it, end-of-life medical care! An outta-nowhere car crash shatters the North Carolinian idyll, leaving Gabby with a bad case of being in a coma and Travis with the most difficult decision of his storybook life. Don’t expect any weighty meditations on the worth of life and who’s qualified to end it, though. Travis’ engagement with his new quandary pretty much stops after some pained-looking sitting and a heart-to-decomposing-heart with his mother’s headstone. Worse still, the resolution to this conflict, the facile tidiness of which I suspect would successfully dissuade many readers from looking into The Choice, is thoroughly bullsh*tty.
Some commercials deliberately misrepresent the movie they’re supposed to be advertising, but with The Choice, all ingredients were clearly labeled on the initial trailer. Eye-singeing North Carolina tourism porn, a love too pure for even this halcyon world, the ultimate trial of tragedy. Not much more to it than that, and for most of the folks who will seek out this film, there doesn’t need to be. The pleasures inherent in small-talk that bleeds into foreplay and kitchens that Nancy Meyers could daydream about are self-evident.