‘The Longest Ride’
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Stars: Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood
2 (out of 5) Globes
Like TV shows, Nicholas Sparks movies have a house style, from which no director or screenwriter may deviate. But within this rubric lies different types. There are the merely grossly, snicker-inducingly manipulative (“The Notebook,” “A Walk to Remember”). There are the stark raving mad flights of insanity (“Safe Haven,” last year’s “The Best of Me”). And there are the ones that seem somehow insufficiently cornball, almost subtle, at least relative to films that have Alzheimer’s patients realizing they’re the ones in the epic love story they’re reading — in other words, boring. “The Longest Ride” belongs in the latter group, alongside the Seyfried-Tatum “Dear John.” It’s an almost respectable entry in a genre that could never be respectable — a weepie that smashes together the Holocaust, bull-riding and Alan Alda, and yet still doesn’t achieve cheesy transcendency.
“The Longest Ride” is actually two Sparks movies, like two tossed-off EPs repackaged as a cash-in album. They don’t particularly have much in common. On one side is the present, represented by Britt Robertson’s Sophia, a New York-bound Texas sorority girl and aspiring snooty art gallery stooge who winds up falling for Luke (Scott Eastwood). He’s her opposite: a champion bull-rider who turns up his nose at abstract art and is trying to overcome the trauma of a nasty tumble from a year past. Theirs is an impossible love, so Sparks puts in their way Ira (Alda!), a cranky old-timer recovering from a car accident. He’s given up on life, but a box of love letters reveals his moony past as a WWII veteran (played by Jack Huston) who struggled to keep aflame the burning devotion he had for Ruth, his one true, played by Oona Chaplin. (Eastwood, Huston and Chaplin are all relations, by the way, so that’s three acting dynasties represented — the one genuinely impressive thing about it.)
Ira’s story is supposed to inspire Sophia to accept the sacrifices that come from impractical relationships. But it’s a pretty vague theme, and whether Sophia will give up her corrosive northeastern urban existence to tottle about in the pure Deep South with a six-pack stud (who is nice and charming so long as he doesn’t have to look at no art) is less wrestled with than stalled till the end, at which point they’re gifted with a happy ending so ridiculous it’s reminiscent of the enforced joke conclusion of F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” only it’s not a joke. Likewise, Ira and Ruth have their problems: she wants kids but he returns from war impotent, leading him to drown his sorrows at the local soda jerk, as you do in the squeaky-clean Sparks-verse. But their resolution, when it finally comes, is easy and even abrupt. As the old “Annie Hall” joke goes, the food is terrible, but in such small portions.
Except the portions aren’t small; together the two tales push the film over the two-hour mark. It’s all Sparks movie autopilot, despite being directed by George Tillman Jr., who previously made the Biggie biopic “Notorious.” He sticks to form: There are sun-dappled shots of lovers sitting together, smiling and staring at an undetermined spot. There are at least three instances of Ira giving Ruth a gift and her jumping on him in joy. There’s the token gratuitous shot of our male lead looking strapping, here a brief scene of him in a white tee transferring logs. (Sparks films are equal-opportunity leering, which is a nice change.)
“The Longest Ride” is slightly, very slightly randier than usual; the token PG-13-style love — not sex — scene features some co-ed naughty bits. But that’s as edgy as it gets. It’s neither particularly crazy — a bit with a truck-on-fire suggests things will hit the silly heights of the mountain man-heavy “The Best of Me,” but it’s a tease — nor even offensive. Of course Sparks would exploit the Holocaust, but despite featuring Jewish leads the worst this segment gets is an unconscious line from Ira, after returning from war and afraid to disappoint Ruth, saying “I was fighting a bigger battle now.” Really, bigger than the fight against Hitler? “The Longest Ride” merely serves as a reminder that Sparks can’t win: damned if he makes effective trash; damned if he doesn’t quite.