Fans of Nicholas Sparks novels and their at-this-point inevitable film adaptations, rejoice.
All that you love and look forward to about these movies is present and accounted for in The Longest Ride, the latest Sparks romantic novel to get the big screen treatment. Beautifully-shot locations, beautiful young people falling in love, eyes, hair, and flat, toned stomachs all aglow as passion finds kindling and then bursts into open flame, meticulously crafted written words that become gentle, meaning-laden narration, sepia-toned flashbacks featuring more beautiful people and love discovered, lost, fought for and restored, and yes, of course, happily ever after — it’s all here, neatly packaged and ready for your enjoyment.
As for anyone else reading this, perhaps those seeking a little more than the shallowest of characterization, the blandest of performances, the most preposterous of contrived endings and the most overused of romantic movie clichés, best to spend your box office dollars elsewhere. There are a few moments of charm here, but not nearly enough to justify everything else that makes up the film’s exorbitant 2 hour-and-change running time. It’s a terribly uneven film, with the negatives far outweighing the positives.
All you need to know about the plot you can get from the trailer: Aspiring Wake Forest University art student Sophia (Britt Robertson), just months from graduation and a prestigious internship at a gallery in New York City, gets dragged away from her studying by her sorority sisters for a night of beers, cowboy boots, and watching “THE hottest guys” try to ride angry bulls for 8 seconds, and while there meets one-time professional bull riding champion Luke (Scott Eastwood), competing to rebuild his career after an injury derailed it a year before. Their eyes meet and the sparks (heh, heh, “Sparks”, get it?) fly, but at first it just seems like a case of poor timing, with Sophia’s imminent departure and Luke’s commitment to continuing his career.
Those hastily-drawn conclusions are called into question when the couple come upon a roadside accident while driving home from their first date, and pull the elderly driver from the burning wreck, along with a box full of old letters next to him in the passenger seat. When he wakes in the hospital, Ira (Alan Alda) seems to wish he hadn’t been pulled from the car, but eventually opens up to Sophia about the contents of the box, a collection of letters written to his life’s great love, his wife Ruth. Sophia takes to visiting Ira daily and reading the letters to Ira as he recovers, and the two develop a bond as the letters tell of Ira and Ruth’s romantic past, his awkward courtship of her helped along by her worldliness and assertiveness, their separation as Ira was called to serve during World War II, his return and their efforts to build a life despite encountering a number of challenges to their marriage that seem almost insurmountable.
Naturally, the parallel between the course of Ira and Ruth’s relationship and Sophia and Luke’s nascent romance isn’t lost on the young couple, who quickly overcome their reservations and plunge headlong into the kind of romance that, well, one only finds in a Nicholas Sparks story. But will their new connection be strong enough to bridge the gulf between their two worlds, between the disparity of their ambitions and dreams, and their fears of the sacrifices that might be necessary in order to be together? If you’ve read the books, you already know the answer to this question. It’s only a matter of the details.
Give the film makers and in particular screenwriter Craig Bolotin credit for one thing in their effort to adapt Sparks’ 17th romance novel for the big screen: they take the time within the story to explore the passion the two primary female characters have for modern art. For both Sophia and the young Ruth, seen in the film’s flashbacks and played by Oona Chaplin (“Game of Thrones”), art is a vibrant, thrilling field of study, one that’s always changing, always full of innovation of expression and technique. It’s their love of art that for the most part defines who these women are and what motivates them, which helps to make them more interesting, but also confounds things because audiences are not given the same sort of insight about why they love the men in their lives. Viewers are left to simply assume that the vivacious and refined Ruth is drawn to young country bumpkin Ira (played in flashbacks by Jack Huston) simply because he’s so painfully shy at first, because he can’t bring himself to talk to her even when she very clearly wishes him to, and she finds that “aw, shucks” demeanor charming. Similarly, we’re left to simply assume that Sophia falls for Luke due to his “Southern gentlemanly” ways, which she insists she’s completely unaccustomed to, rather than any other tangible factor, because aside from those old fashioned manners and his rugged good looks, the only thing there is to know about Luke is his steadfast resolve to continue bull riding, even at the risk of his life. His passion for his sport is supposedly meant to mirror her love of art, but its never given much more explanation than that time-honored cliché used by emotionally-stunted male characters in cinema: “It’s all I’ve ever known.” Really? That’s it?
And therein, really, lies the heart of the problem. There’s simply not enough to these characters on-screen to make you want to buy into their love story. The couple set in the past, young Ira and Ruth, fare better in this regard, as their scenes show a courtship, relationship, and marriage beset with realistic challenges that the pair deal with in ways that are believable. The contemporary couple, in comparison, aren’t given much at all to work with in terms of character aside from more well-worn clichés. They’re there to look pretty and in love in their very tame intimate scenes, longing when they’re apart, and blissful once they’re reunited. Toss a scene almost entirely plagiarized from Jerry Maguire to address Luke’s conflict between love and career and an out-of-nowhere third act climax and resolution that miraculously gives everyone exactly what they want in the end, and you’ve got the cinematic equivalent of a milkshake that it takes you two hours plus to drink: all sugary sweetness and no substance.
But again, none of this really makes it any more different than any other Nicholas Sparks-inspired romantic escape, so if that’s what you love, and that’s what you’re there to see, then by all means, enjoy your milkshake. Just have that box of tissues ready to handle the tears … and also maybe some insulin.
Score: 2 out of 5
The Longest Ride
Starring Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin, and Alan Alda. Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Running Time: 139 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality, partial nudity, and some war and sports action.