Silver Screen: The Longest Ride **1/2
Though he’s never written a sequel, Nicholas Sparks is the mastermind of one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises. None of the movies based on Sparks’s novels are literally connected, but they’re so similar— in tone, setting, structure, and maudlin sentiment— that they achieve a sequel’s comforting familiarity and predictability. They’re awfully consistent.
It hurts a little to use the word “mastermind” to describe Sparks’s empire of spent tissues and cashed checks. Number-one Nicholas Sparks fan Nicholas Sparks has gone so far as to favorably compare himself to Shakespeare. Certainly he’s amassed a literal fortune as America’s preeminent jerker of tears, but the stories themselves seem like less than the work of a masterful mind, dependent as they are upon stunning coincidences and flagrant emotional manipulation.
The last eight years have seen the big-screen release of seven Nicholas Sparks movies. (The Choice is already on tap for 2016.) This year’s entry, The Longest Ride, is another up-the-middle effort full of favorite Sparks tropes: love letters, parallel flashbacks, a possibly fatal medical condition, and a reassuring implication of destiny and grand design. Also, South Carolina.
Accent-free Jersey girl Sophia (Britt Robertson) is down south finishing up her degree so she can return to big city life for a gig at a New York City art gallery. (If movies are accurate— it would probably be illegal if they weren’t, right?— the vast majority of American women are employed by art galleries and lifestyle magazines.) She’s a pixie-faced doll, as thin and slight as... well, a Nicholas Sparks novel. But she’s also a tough cookie raised by immigrant parents who put herself through school on a scholarship.
Sophia would seem to be the opposite of cartoon cowboy Luke (Scott Eastwood), a bull rider struggling to return to the top after a head injury nearly killed him. He says he’s trying to win to pay the mortgage on the family ranch for his widowed mother (Lolita Davidovich), but in truth he’s just obsessed with the rodeo.
The unlikely pair hit it off, but their first date is interrupted by a car crash. Luke pulls an old man from the flaming wreckage, and while recuperating at the hospital the lovelorn codger (Alan Alda) reminisces about his wife, an immigrant art lover who passed away some years ago.
The narrative is split between the culture clash of our star-crossed lovers and flashbacks to the tragedy-tinged romance between the older couple, played as youngsters by Oona Chaplin and Jack Huston.
The older story is by far the more compelling of the two. The tale of wounded World War II veteran Ira and his self-possessed art-connoisseur bride has its share of dramatic twists but never sinks into melodrama. Their hardships are a bit more understated than the usual Sparks dilemmas, and as such, more affecting.
It doesn’t hurt that Huston is a terrific leading man with a natural throwback look. The Boardwalk Empire costar is right at home in the sepia-toned post-war scenes, and his chemistry with Chaplin (granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and former costar of Game of Thrones) is significant.
Alas, these flashbacks exist mostly to service the far less-plausible romance between Sophia and Luke, eventually to such a degree that the old couple’s fate is a long setup to facilitate a payoff for a far shallower pair of characters. Eastwood’s Luke is such a cowboy caricature he might as well fire two six-shooters in the air whenever he’s excited. The old-school rancher shows up to Sophia’s sorority house with flowers and hat in hand to take her on a picnic date where they drink sweet tea from mason jars. You might want to give the movie credit for being aware he’s an implausible throwback— it’s openly acknowledged in the dialogue— yet the sorority house is painted even more broadly, with a gaggle of sexy coeds lounging and doing homework in one large entry room until Luke arrives, when they squeal and rush to the window and shout, “I want a cowboy!”
Director George Tillman Jr. does sturdy work with the mushy material. He hits all the requisite notes— tourism-porn shots of the Carolina landscape, dreamy montages of Robertson beaming and Eastwood doing his best Ryan Gosling smile-squint— and excels in the bull-riding sequences. What could have been a plot device becomes the movie’s most visually compelling element, with a kinetic depiction of the rodeo that puts a glossy sheen on the dust and blood and bull slobber.
With a running time of nearly two hours and twenty minutes, The Longest Ride threatens to earn its title. It can’t take too much longer to read the novel. Still, it mostly achieves what it sets out to do, which is trick you into crying. At the very least, there’s a pretty decent movie nested inside of a bad one.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.