‘The Choice’
Director:
Ross Katz
Stars: Teresa Palmer, Ben Walker
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Is the new Nicholas Sparks mess supposed to be funny? Like, on purpose? It can be occasionally surreal watching “The Choice,” this year’s cornball soap about sun-dappled lovers writing notes to each other and saying things like, “You remember what you said while holding my hand under the stars?” until one of them gets into an accident or dies. It delivers the goods, such as they are, but sometimes it seems like it’s gone rogue and realized these movies are best treated as jokes — or maybe they should try to be good. Or perhaps we’ve been required to see so many of these we’ve started hallucinating.

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Either way, it begins, as so many do, with lofty narration. “Now pay attention,” purrs good ol’ boy hero Travis (Ben Walker) in his Sexy Foghorn Leghorn accent, “because I’m going to tell you the secret to life.” Ready? “It’s all about decisions.” He’s talking about the titular Choice, which won’t crop up until the last half hour. Till then we’re regaled with how Travis met-cute Gabby (Teresa Palmer), a hot aspiring doctor naturally introduced wearing Secret Hot Girl Glasses. She’s bookish and she doesn’t take kindly to Travis, a day-drinking louse with a permanent smirk and bad hair — the usual Sparks bro who’s ripe for a kindly, maybe doomed woman to reform him.

Thing is, sometimes this iteration of the Hallmark Sparks-verse feels more like a Kate Hudson rom-com. Palmer is perky and excitable. She’s so flabbergasted by this man-child that she even stomps away from him with a loud “ARGH!” In more calm scenes they settle on a self-awareness that suggests a stealth Sparks lampoon. They comment knowingly, even flirtatiously, on their flirtation scenes, and when Gabby belatedly slips in some God Talk, Travis makes a comment about that, too. Later, when the two seem to be parted forever, one character — the annoyingly all-knowing sister (Maggie Grace) — tells Travis he should just go profess his love now, rather than wait 10 years, like those fools in other Sparks movies (like his most hallowed number, “The Notebook”), who are too stupid to reunite before it’s too late.

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Is “The Choice” trying to break free of formula? Sometimes, a little, maybe. The director is Ross Katz, who produced no less than “In the Bedroom” and “Lost in Translation,” and was last seen helming the very Sundance indie dramedy “Adult Beginners,” starring Nick Kroll. You can sometime sense him nudging things away from the strict parameters of the franchise into something genuinely charming, even genuinely romantic. Gabby and Travis’ first hook-up is actually steamy (in a tasteful PG-13 way, natch). It’s even set to The National, which in the Sparks Cinematic Universe is like blasting GG Allin. Even the big proposal scene is played for comedy — failed, bad comedy, but a movie like this gets an "A" for effort.

It seems like “The Choice” might become the almost tolerable Sparks. And it might have even gotten away with it if it wasn’t for that meddling third act. Right as our lovebirds seem destined for an eternity of hand-holding and moon-watching, there’s a dumb accident, and the clumsily planted God talk finally pays off. Not even a saboteur could ruin the mawkishness to come, which isn’t even inspired, far from the tasteless insanity that made “Safe Harbor” and “The Best of Me” instant camp classics. Not even copious cutaways to dogs and puppies can stop one thing from being clear: Sparks, as always, wins.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge