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Benjamin Walker and Teresa Palmer fall hard in The Choice.

I like Teresa Palmer. The athletic blonde Australian, who turns 30 this month, is equally at home in comedies like Take Me Home Tonight or action thrillers like I Am Number Four or the recent Point Break remake, and she can put on easy American or British accents. Why no one has cast her and Kristen Stewart as mismatched sisters is beyond me. She certainly looks like the Twilight star but has a sunnier temperament in place of Stewart’s nervous intensity. Indeed, her vivacious spark seems to come from an authentic place. You can see it in The Choice, even though, like everyone else in the cast, she seems to have filmed every take after downing 12 cups of espresso. I lead off with this because I’m grasping at the slenderest of straws for anything genuine or positive to take away from this wretched Valentine’s Day weeper, and that’s what I’ve got.

Palmer portrays Gabby Holland, a girl from the exalted reaches of Charleston who has settled in humble Wilmington, N.C. to study for her medical exams. Distracting her from this is Travis Parker (Benjamin Walker), her next-door neighbor who parties too long and loud when he’s not helping run a veterinary clinic with his dad (Tom Wilkinson). Because this is based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, their initial hostility gives way to undying love, despite the small consideration that she has a boyfriend (Tom Welling) who’s from her old-money circle. Because this is based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, Travis and Gabby’s love takes a tragic turn.

Because this is based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, the movie begins with Travis’ voiceover saying, “I’m gonna tell you the meaning of life. It’s all about decisions.” Shortly after that, he visits a hospital with a bunch of flowers and tells a doctor that it’s “for a woman who deserves the Moon and the stars.” I could just feel myself sinking down into my seat when I heard those lines. In fairness, director Ross Katz (who made his debut last year with his slacker comedy Adult Beginners) does more than any other filmmaker to try to inject some humor into the Sparksian molasses. Somehow, this only makes things worse. The entire cast gets infected with a case of the cutes, and even the great Wilkinson is reduced to an annoyingly folksy old fount of wisdom here.

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Particularly bad off is Walker, the tall, handsome actor from the stage who gave a credible performance as our nation’s 16th president in 2012’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, an achievement akin to sustaining a Shakespearean tragic hero in the midst of a Kevin James comedy. In this movie he turns unbearably smug as a playboy who just needs a good woman to settle him down. The filmmakers try surrounding him with puppies and kittens at the veterinary clinic in an attempt to make him seem adorable. It doesn’t work.

There are more pernicious forms of badness lurking, too. A church visit from an African-American gospel choir reminds us of the overwhelming whiteness of Sparks’ stories. It’s not like his novels take place in Stephen King’s Maine. They’re set in the Carolinas, for God’s sake, and yet he can’t conceive a single black character to whom something interesting might happen.

Worse still is the miraculous final plot twist, which is unforgivably cheap even by the author’s standards. Never mind how unlikely it is from a medical standpoint. It feels like a contrivance put there specifically so our hero can be redeemed, not that the movie seems to think his pre-Gabby bed-hopping needs much redemption. On the other hand, Gabby’s health scare comes across like a way-out-of-proportion punishment for her infidelity. I think that’s what it was about this movie that made me so angry that I immediately wanted to wash it down with the most violent slasher flick I could find.

Anyway, if you’re looking for something romantic for the holiday, the Oscar-nominated Brooklyn is back in theaters. It covers much the same ground as this movie and does it in a much more honest and up-front way. Really, almost anything in theaters right now would be a better alternative to The Choice.

 

[box_info]The Choice
Starring Benjamin Walker and Teresa Palmer. Directed by Ross Katz. Written by Bryan Sipe, based on Nicholas Sparks’ novel. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]

1 COMMENT

  1. Diversity is great and all, but I have a feeling Sparks is writing what he knows, which is white southern culture. If he tried to write black characters to which something interesting happens, he’d probably be criticized for either it not being enough, or for it being stereotypical and racist and poorly done. Sort of a lose/lose situation.

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