Here are some of the things I learned while watching The Longest Ride, the new movie based on (yet another) Nicholas Sparks bestseller: Clint Eastwood passed along some solid genes. Jennifer Lawrence has a doppelganger. Love requires sacrifice (“always”) but not necessarily for long or in particularly punishing ways. Cowboys and art lovers can live in harmony. Bull riding is not ever going to be something I care about. And if characters must read letters during the course of a movie, I would find it helpful if the letters existed for a reason and not just as a plot device.
But maybe the most important thing I learned was this: Merely adding an older generation of lovers to a love story does not make your romance one for the ages. Doesn’t even make it The Notebook.
The Longest Ride could have been a decent story about stoic but gentlemanly bull rider Luke (Scott Eastwood) and soon-to-be college grad Sophia (Britt Robertson) who have to work hard to make room for each other in their very different lives. They meet at a rodeo. She’s heading for a prestigious internship at an art gallery in Manhattan after graduation. He lives on a ranch in North Carolina — yeah, I wondered about that, too — and is determined to become the top bull rider in the country after suffering a terrible injury. They are strangers in each other’s worlds, etc. (the amusing scene in which bland but stone cold handsome Luke, cowboy hat and all, picks up Sophia at her sorority house for their first date is precisely the sort of fish-out-of-water scene the movie should have included more of). They like each other, but you know trouble is coming because the second Sophia mentions the words “bad timing,” the thunder rolls ominously.
Instead of focusing on the struggles of this relationship, though, The Longest Ride introduces elderly Ira (Alan Alda), whom Luke and Sophia rescue from a car crash at the end of their first date. As Luke lugs Ira to safety, Sophia pulls a box of letters from Ira’s burning car (he just carries them around, as one does). Later she returns to the hospital every day to read a letter to him for the sole reason that Ira is a catalyst, tasked with teaching the younger set a little something about perseverance, love and sacrifice.
The idea, perhaps, is to add depth and poignancy and a reminder that no matter how much time we have, it’s never enough. But the storyline, told in painfully contrived flashbacks, merely adds dull, cumbersome length to a movie that runs more than two hours. The younger Ira (Jack Huston) falls for the new art-loving girl at his synagogue, Ruth (Oona Chaplin) and courts her in cliches. They dance, kiss, frolic on the beach. “What right do I have to be happy when there’s so much suffering in the world?” she asks.
Don’t worry. Suffering’s a-coming. Ira proves himself brave in World War II on an artificial-looking battlefield but comes home a different man. They can’t have children, and they fight. For some reason Ira keeps writing her these letters describing the wonder of their life together even while they are presumably living it, which makes no sense. The fault for this clunky set-up ultimately lies with Sparks’ novel, but still, the whole thing rings more false than Safe Haven, and that movie had a ghost. The most interesting angle involves Black Mountain College, a sort of educational artists’ colony near Asheville during the late ’30s and 1940s, but the movie’s invocation of it is too slapdash to make any real impact.
There’s obviously an audience out there with an insatiable appetite for romance — Sparks’ books have sold millions of copies, and every damned one gets adapted into a film. The fact is, some of the movies aren’t bad, such as Dear John or The Lucky One (or even the aforementioned The Notebook, if weeping hysterically is your thing). The Longest Ride, though, is right there with The Last Song as one of the worst of the Sparks adaptations, a love story that doesn’t make you long for romance so much as tire of it all too quickly.
Cast: Scott Eastwood, Britt Robertson, Alan Alda, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin, Lolita Davidovich.
Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Screenwriter: Craig Bolotin. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 128 minutes. Some sexuality, partial nudity, some war and sports action. Playing at: area theaters.