When it comes to Nicholas Sparks, you’re either up for the ride or you’re not. If you are, you’re part of a Middle American fan club that has supported nine schmaltzy, formulaic, achingly sincere film adaptations of the novelist’s books to the cumulative box office tune of about $750,000,000. If you’re not, well, The Longest Ride will feel like one of the longest 128 minutes of your life. Old-fashioned in all the most tedious ways, this by-the-numbers romance between oddly mismatched lovers plods along in a way that will nonetheless provide the cinematic equivalent of an agreeable airplane novel read for the already converted.
What’s most strange here is how Sparks, in a calculated attempt to link people from very different worlds, offers up social backgrounds for them that simply don’t mix at all — modern Southern college sorority life, the circumstances for World War II Jewish refugees, enclaves of modern art a half-century ago and today and, per the title, the good-ol’-boy milieu of professional bull riding. On top of that, no matter what crises may arise (and they are numerous), everyone is always perfectly attired and surrounded by pristine North Carolina settings in which no blade of grass is ever out of place.
The pretty couple at the center of things has modern cowboy Luke (Scott Eastwood), comeback-minded after having been violently thrown by a mighty mean bull named Rango, pursuing a very gentlemanly courtship of Wake Forest college senior Sophia (Britt Robertson) shortly before she’s due to move to New York for a high-end art gallery internship. Luke’s the sort to tote flowers when he shows up for their first date (“Call me old-school,” he bashfully intones), while Sophia is mentally already half-way out the school door on the way to her big-city future.
But fate intervenes, as it has a habit of doing, when the couple rescue an old man from a car accident on a dark rainy night and take him to a hospital. While he recovers, genial old gent Ira Levinson (Alan Alda) allows Sophia to read aloud to him from old letters that recount his poignant relationship with his beloved late wife, Ruth. So even as it’s not explained why so many letters were written when, in fact, Ira and Ruth were in the same place most of the time back in the early 1940s, we see extended flashbacks of the newly arrived Austrian Ruth (Oona Chaplin), a vivacious, forthright, immaculately attired young woman, capturing the heart of the pleasant looking but exceedingly placid Ira (Jack Huston, bearing absolutely no resemblance to Alda, young or old).
The couple’s many trials and tribulations, notably including Ira’s Jake Barnes-like war injury that prevents him from giving Ruth the children she craves and their failure to adopt a parentless hillbilly boy who shows intellectual promise, simply serve to demonstrate how few obstacles Luke and Sophia face compared to theirs. But more directly, Ruth’s passion for modern art fostered at the (real) progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina feeds oh-so conveniently into Sophia’s career interests, while also providing the springboard for one of the most outrageously preposterous surprise endings in recent movies.
Leaving his career origins in Soul Food and the Barbershop series (which he produced) very far behind indeed, director George Tillman Jr. indulges, nay, embraces the sanitized banality of Sparks’ world with a straight face. Just as the basic plot points are hard to swallow, even the most rudimentary aspects of the characters’ interactions feel forced, artificial and unspontaneous. A significant part of the interest here surely lies in the film’s role as a showcase for four just moderately known young actors. Robertson, who co-stars in the highly anticipated, about-to-arrive Tomorrowland, often seems to have a bridle on here, keen to impart some spontaneity that’s being kept in check. Eastwood, in his first significant starring role after several supporting gigs, most recently in Fury, certainly resembles his dad both physically and in his inclination for minimal dialogue; he’s easy on the eyes and comfortably inhabits a Western-style character, but his potential remains to be determined.
Curiously, the couple from 70-odd years ago has been cast with grandchildren of Hollywood luminaries from that period. Huston displays none of the gumption associated with his director grandfather John or the latter’s thespian offspring. By contrast, Chaplin, granddaughter of Charles, daughter of actress Geraldine and namesake of her grandmother, is the sole younger actor to pop here; playing the only one of the youthful characters with any boldness or inclination to speak her own mind, the unconventional-looking performer comes off as assertive, driven and appealing in an idiosyncratic manner.
But providing the film with whatever emotional grounding it can claim is Alda. Restricted almost exclusively to a hospital bed, the 79-year-old actor makes the canned sentimentality of his 91-year-old character go down quite easily as he comments to Sophia about the vicissitudes of his life.
The settings and compositions are picture-postcard, the score syrupy, the bull-riding coverage not entirely convincing, the sentiments cliched and reassuring. But, boy oh boy, the ending! In Sparks’ world, when happiness rains, it pours.
Production: Fox 2000 Pictures, Temple Hill, Nicholas Sparks Productions
Cast: Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin, Alan Alda, Lolita Davidovich, Melissa Benoist, Gloria Reuben
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Screenwriter: Craig Bolotin, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Nicholas Sparks, Theresa Park
Executive producers: Michele Imperato Stabile, Robert Teitel, Tracey Nyberg
Director of photography: David Tattersall
Production designer: Mark Garner
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Jason Ballantine
Music: Mark Isham
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham
PG-13 rating, 128 minutes