Nicholas Sparks' novels wouldn't continue to be best-sellers and be adapted into movies if some audiences didn't like their romances with a hearty helping of cheese.
The 11th big-screen adaptation of one of his books, "The Choice," is like fondue.
As such, some will eagerly dig in, while others are likely to find it too sticky and overly rich.
The story is about Travis (Benjamin Walker), a Southern charmer who lives on the North Carolina coast with his dog and his boat and his easy-breezy lifestyle. He never worried about having a girlfriend until he meets Gabby (Teresa Palmer), a medical student who moves in next door. He's transfixed, even though she's irritated by his loud music and carefree attitude — and tells him so.
Gabby has a boyfriend, anyway: local doctor Ryan (Tom Welling, looking twice the size he was in TV's "Smallville"), and it seems they're destined to be married.
But when Ryan goes away on business, Travis turns his lady-killer charms on Gabby, inviting her out on his boat, then his motorcycle, and bonding with her over their love of dogs. Imagine her surprise when she discovers he's the town veterinarian!
This is young love, wealthy Southern style. Every character has a house, and earning a living isn't an issue. It seems the ultimate achievement is marriage and children.
Meanwhile, Travis' know-it-all sister, Steph (Maggie Grace), can tell he's smitten. So can his ex, Monica (Alexandra Daddario), who advises him to follow his heart. Both actresses wear similar dark brown hairstyles in the film, and at times it's hard to tell them apart, which is confusing and potentially gross.
All of this relationship development happens in an extensive flashback that fills the bulk of the movie. The opening scene shows Travis at a hospital — where Gabby has been sent after a near-fatal accident — with flowers in hand. It then immediately jumps back seven years to show the early days of Travis and Gabby's courtship, following the evolution of their lives together until he ends up at the hospital with the flowers.
Walker is a capable and convincing leading man, and strikingly sweet as a playboy falling in love. Palmer, though, is best when playing a plucky student. She and Walker have chemistry as a couple, but she fails to convey the maturity her character would have after seven years of heartbreak, commitment and parenthood. The makeup artists may also be to blame.
Two-time Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson adds gravitas as Travis and Steph's lovable widowed dad, but his character isn't really integral to the story.
North Carolina is a character in itself, particularly its marshy coastline and sprawling waterways. Cinematographer Alar Kivilo shoots the lapping waves and swaying reeds like they're starring in a travel video.
And while the photography is beautiful, at times it unfortunately adds to the cheese factor. When things get rough in Travis and Gabby's relationship, the seas are choppy and gray. When uncertainty looms, the landscape is windy. It's metaphor to the max.
Romance stories endure because true love is endlessly appealing. But "The Choice" might be too cloying for anyone but Sparks and Harlequin Romance devotees.
What: "The Choice." Directed by Ross Katz. A Lionsgate release
Star rating (out of four):
With: Benjamin Walker, Teresa Palmer, Maggie Grace, Alexandra Daddario, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Welling
MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned — some material may be inappropriate for children under 13) "for sexual content and some thematic issues"
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Playing at: Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough)