This isn’t the first rodeo for Nicholas Sparks, the beloved/reviled author who publishes romantic dramas faster than CBS cranks out “CSIs.”
“The Longest Ride,” his 10th movie adaptation, delivers a slick, serviceable blend of romance and melodrama. Your typical love and sacrifice and bull-riding tale.
Comparably, it’s one of Sparks’ stronger cinematic outings. (His films remain 0 for 10 in attaining a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) Part of it is the chutzpah of creating parallel stories out of two completely dissimilar situations. The other comes from the cast packed with charming, attractive descendants of Hollywood legends.
Sophia (Britt Robertson of TV’s “Under the Dome”) plays a Wake Forest art student poised to start an internship at a posh Manhattan gallery. Even though her life is in transition, she agrees to a date with Luke (Scott Eastwood, son of Clint), a former bull-riding champion working his way back into “the toughest sport on dirt” after suffering a head injury.
Can an artsy sorority girl fit in with the giant-belt-buckle crowd? Wait, there’s more.
During a night out, they make a Good Samaritan detour to assist Ira (Alan Alda), an elderly widower knocked loopy in a fiery car accident. Sophia salvages a box of his old letters, whose true meaning surfaces as she continues to visit him in the hospital.
As is the Sparks tradition in hits such as “The Notebook,” a love affair from the past guides the couple of the present.
On the eve of World War II, young Ira (Jack Huston, grandson of John) falls for a newly arrived Austrian Jew named Ruth (Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie).
“The world you and your family fled finally caught up to us,” Ira’s poetic voice-over explains.
Soon he’s shipped off to face a panzer division, which leaves him with a war wound that threatens their marriage.
How the blue-eyed country romance collides with this urban Jewish period piece is what makes “The Longest Ride” an engaging, though never wholly convincing, experience. You can’t accuse Sparks of relying on clichés when he expands the parameters so far beyond a traditional tear-jerker.
Yet his secondary story eventually eclipses the primary one. At first, the rodeo stuff is staged by director George Tillman Jr. (“Notorious”) with bustling energy. Strapping a GoPro to a bucking bull sure conveys the danger of a full eight-second ride. Yet Luke and Sophia’s tale ultimately doesn’t carry the gravitas of their counterparts’. It’s hard to feel sorry for such beautiful people with such minor problems.
Meanwhile, Ira and Ruth transform into a real couple dealing with real challenges. Oddly, anti-Semitism isn’t one of them, despite living in North Carolina in the 1950s. (A recurring knock on Sparks is the lack of diversity among his characters — criticism he clearly took to heart when crafting this 2013 novel.)
Chaplin doesn’t quite sell the Viennese accent (she was actually raised in Spain). It’s also amusing how this modest grade school teacher always looks like she just raided Grace Kelly’s closet. But she plays an increasingly disgruntled wife with enough honest vulnerability to anchor the movie, even when her performance is glimpsed only in flashbacks.
Ira summarizes this rocky relationship with the comment, “Love requires sacrifice. Always.”
That applies to pop cinema as well. There’s a fine little story within the sweeping arc of “The Longest Ride.” It’s often drowned out by the sound of stomping hooves.
‘THE LONGEST RIDE’