I’ll just get this out of the way now: you’ve already seen The Choice. The genre that is Nicholas Sparks at this point has defined the romantic tragedy movie as much as Marvel has provided the blueprint for the shared universe. The full checklist is here: quaint small town, prickly leads, people unbothered by rainstorms, moonlit rowboats – everything you’d imagine (and if you’re into this sort of thing, want) is in The Choice. It’s an earnestness that makes the movie easily digestible, but also easily forgettable.
As these things usually start, there’s a girl, Gabby (Teresa Palmer), who moves in next door to a guy, Travis (Benjamin Walker), and the two clash right off the bat. Gabby left distractions of the city to live in a small North Carolinian town for peace and quiet while studying to become a doctor; Travis throws somewhat loud get-togethers with a few friends, much to Gabby’s chagrin. Each has a significant other (Alexandra Daddario and Tom Welling), and there’s exactly zero tension in the movie suggesting that there’s any chance Gabby and Travis won’t end up together.
The first half of The Choice has growing pains, stumbling from scene to scene, shoving in the usual syrupy sweet romanticism that screenwriter Bryan Sipe knew was as necessary to the Nicholas Sparks rulebook as the attractive, straight white couple falling in love against all the odds. Palmer comes off as a walking, talking stick-in-the-mud with distracting, see-she’s-working-hard raccoon eyes; Walker is straight-up preposterous, dropping pick-up line after pick-up line to justify an opening scene in which his friends sit in awe at his “lady’s man” status.
Naturally, they fall in love in the weeks that Gabby’s doctor boyfriend Ryan is off on a work trip, and Travis’ on again/off again girlfriend Monica is off again. Once Palmer and Walker get past all of the ham-fisted attempts at prickly dialogue and stolen glances, there’s glimpses of an endearing chemistry between the two. They become a bit more genuine, and their dialogue gets less leaden, despite the fact that the script treats them more like pawns in a demented game of euthanasia chicken than actual real people that have real decisions (ahem, choices) to make.
They grow on you, maybe against your will, especially after a time jump a bit over half-way through the movie that picks up the pieces seven years after they meet. Walker gets the burden of the emotionally cloying scenes as the movie winds down, and he manages to do that thing where characters talk to themselves in a movie and make it not totally awkward. Palmer doesn’t do much with Gabby that’s unexpected in this type of genre, but Sipe’s script at least makes her decision to cheat on Ryan feel powered by raw emotions and in-the-moment indecision, not gross slut-shaming vindictiveness.
It’s just that the movie surrounding them is so obsessively preoccupied with catapulting its leads through a plot-point checklist so Sparksian that you could get a toothache from its soppy opening scene. Gabby and Travis meet, they fight, there’s an emotional letter, a date at a carnival, and at one point someone puts puppies in a basket and someone else points out how cute puppies in baskets are – it’s all economically pieced together, and undeniably functional as far as the basest tenants for being a movie goes, but it’s also tragically expected.
If you buy what Palmer and Walker are selling, The Choice has the potential to get you by its end. Another bullet point on that list is ticked off to give the story some act three drama, and I guess finally getting around to explaining that title, but if you were unconvinced by everything that came before the turn, there’s nothing in the last moments that’ll save the movie for you. It toys with the idea of full-on tragedy, but Sparks’ precedent for unexpected (and weird) twists just makes the vanilla bow-tied finale more disappointing.
The final moments negate any actual choice that Andrew has to make for the sake of love, letting everything wrap up nicely on its own at the hands of the universe and undercutting the movie’s entire central you-choose-your-own-fate themes. But, like the film itself, it’s just a bullet point on a list. A list so devoutly studied and followed that The Choice feels comparatively less romantic as it does surgical. It’s a competently assembled collection of queues for its audience to laugh, cry, cheer and breathe sighs of relief when they realize that the only tough choice they’ll have to make is whether or not Ross Katz’s movie is the last time they’ll be succumbing to the Nicholas Sparks Cinematic Universe.
Endearingly acted by Palmer and Walker, The Choice is just so brazenly similar to every romantic tragedy that's come before that it feels less like a movie and more like the chicken scratch notes of someone who sped-read a Nicholas Sparks book.