20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality, partial nudity, and some war and sports action.
Running time: 128 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.
Movies based on Nicholas Sparks novels are low-hanging fruit. With their patented formula of painfully earnest romance and melodrama, they are easy to chew up and spit out. They exist in a glistening parallel universe where the impossible isn’t just possible but expected. They are a genre unto themselves.
But! Despite the urge to tool on them, sometimes they do exactly what they need to do to please their target audience. “The Notebook” is, of course, the gold standard. “Safe Haven” was entertaining enough for its gorgeous leads (Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough) and its batshit-crazy twist. But “The Longest Ride” is pretty darn tolerable — and sometimes even enjoyable — not just for fans but also for regular people who are, you know, cynical.
Director George Tillman Jr. (“Notorious,” “Faster”) might not seem like the obvious choice for a Sparks movie, but he brings some artistry and energy to these gooey, overlong proceedings while maintaining the elements we’ve come to expect. (Craig Bolotin wrote the script.) They include any or all of the following: kissing in the rain, magical old people, generation-spanning romance, cancer, death, the North Carolina coast, a box full of important stuff, letters that explain everything and a climactic shocker that changes whatever you’ve just seen.
“The Longest Ride,” the 10th Sparks novel to make it to the screen, is extremely Sparksian but also quite agreeable thanks to the easy chemistry of its attractive leads. Scott Eastwood stars as a hunky professional bull rider named Luke Collins. In his first major film role, Eastwood bears an eerie physical resemblance to his dad, Clint, back in his “Rawhide” days — the eyes, the smile and the slightly raspy voice but also the magnetic screen presence. He acquits himself just fine here; like the film as a whole, Eastwood does exactly what he needs to do, which includes frequently appearing shirtless. But I’m gonna go ahead and play devil’s advocate and say this is relevant to reveal the serious scars he’s acquired from years of participating in such a dangerous sport, and not just shameless eye candy.
Perky, blonde Britt Robertson co-stars as Sophia Danko, a senior art history major at Wake Forest University whose sorority sisters drag her to a rodeo one afternoon. (Melissa Benoist, who had such a natural presence as Miles Teller’s brief love interest in “Whiplash,” goes underused as her best friend.) There, Sophia meets cute with the scruffy, sweaty Luke; afterward, the two flirt outside a honky tonk while their friends drunkenly line dance inside.
But Sophia is reluctant to launch into a new romance since she’s leaving in two months for an internship at a New York City art gallery. Still, she can’t resist Luke’s old-fashioned, cowboy charms, which include picking her up at the sorority house in tight jeans and a hat with a handful of flowers, then driving her in his pickup truck to a lakeside barbecue picnic by lantern light. Seriously, this guy is too good to be true — which extends to his heroism when he notices on the way home that a car has gone through a railing on a winding, rain-soaked road. Luke pulls the driver out while Sophia retrieves the crucial box of historical items which will provide the backbone of the film’s era-spanning structure.
Turns out the gentleman is Ira Levinson, a World War II veteran with plenty of stories to tell — all of which he’s conveniently already put down in writing in the form of love letters to his dear, departed wife, Ruth. Alan Alda brings gravitas, wisdom and wry, sly humor to the role simply by showing up and being Alan Alda. His presence alone makes the improbable friendship that develops between Ira and Sophia almost believable.
Sophia returns to his hospital room day after day and gives him the strength to recover by reading his letters out loud to him — only the narration comes from Ira himself, and it seems that he’s written these letters to Ruth to recap important events in their lives mere moments after they’ve occurred. It’s as if he got into the car after a big date, pulled out some stationery and started scribbling away in the front seat. Very confusing — and contrived.
However, the letters provide a window into the thrilling romance he enjoyed in the 1940s as a young man (played by Jack Huston, grandson of John) with the young Ruth (Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie — this is a seriously pedigreed picture). Cosmically, the flashbacks reveal stages and struggles in their decades-old relationship which mirror what Luke and Sophia are experiencing now. And they’re far more engaging than the story that takes place in the present day, with far greater stakes. Ira was a small-town North Carolina boy. He quickly fell for Ruth, who’d fled with her Austrian Jewish family just before the war, and awkwardly tried to chat her up at temple. (“The Longest Ride” is, like all Sparks fare, super white, but at least the religious diversity is refreshing.)
Like Sophia, Ruth was an art lover, with an impeccable eye for the mid-century, abstract expressionist masters: Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning. (It’s a connection which obviously will become relevant later, which is not the slightest bit of a spoiler.) Chaplin is radiant as the vibrant, sophisticated Ruth, and she has a lovely chemistry with Huston, whose timeless good looks make him a great fit for this kind of period drama. If only the entire film could have been about them — but alas, we have to return to the modern-day story, where Luke and Sophia frolic on horseback before frolicking in the shower. The leering is all very tastefully lighted.
But the forced conflict which keeps them apart is rather flimsy and obviously navigable. Will Luke give up the life of a bull rider before it kills him? Will Sophia figure out a way to sell overpriced art while still attending to the needs of her heart? You don’t need to have seen a single Sparks movie before — or any movie, for that matter — to figure out the answer to those questions.