★ ★ ★
As if single guys don’t have enough to worry about in their quest to impress the opposite sex, here comes The Longest Ride, a cloying but satisfying love story about a provincial bull rider and a sophisticated sorority girl that will surely up the ante on how to get a date in the 21st century. From now on, obtaining a lady’s digits will require nothing less than remaining astride a pissed-off, two-ton, horned mass of pure muscle for eight seconds. And once you do score a phone number, you may actually have to call (not text!) for a date. Darn you, Nicholas Sparks.
Sparks, the renowned (and often maligned) virtuoso of sap, is the man behind the best-selling novel The Notebook, which was made into a blockbuster film. The Longest Ride is the latest adaptation of his work, and was directed by George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food). The beauty of the movie is its ability to make even the happiest of people curse their lives in comparison, which is why it works as a kind of aspirational example of what life could be without selfies and booty calls. The story centers on Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood), an old-fashioned North Carolina country boy and world-champion bull rider (recovering from a bull-induced brain injury) who runs his widowed mother’s ranch. A Harlequin romance novelist would be hard-pressed to dream up such a catch. He’s strong yet gentle! He’s manly but can cook! He has Clint Eastwood’s nose! He rides bulls and, oh yeah, rescues a guy from a burning car! Smelling salts should be sold with the popcorn.
At a bull-riding competition in which he takes first place (!), Luke meets Sophia (Britt Robertson), a beautiful but studious sorority girl who is about to move to New York to pursue her dream of working in the art world. His chivalrous behavior confuses her at first, as he insists on paying for her drink and asks for her phone number so he can call her to schedule a real date; Sophia admits that she’s never experienced this sort of treatment in this age of third-wave feminism, friends-with-benefits hookups, and sexting. She even contemplates not returning his punctual calls, but ultimately can’t help herself. Driving home after a romantic picnic (where they regrettably decide that their relationship cannot progress due to her impending move), they happen upon a fiery car crash, and Lucas springs into action like Dirty Harry in a cowboy hat. The elderly man they save, Ira Levinson (Alan Alda), grouchily barks at Sophia to extricate an old box from the burning car; she scoops it up and brings it to the hospital to return to him, but not before taking a little peek at the love letters inside. Sophia and Ira soon develop a friendship as she reads aloud the letters written to his true love, Ruth. Through a series of flashbacks set in the 1940s, we meet a young Ruth (played by Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter, Oona Chaplin) and a strapping Ira (Jack Huston of those Hustons). War vet Ira and Jewish immigrant Ruth are desperately in love, but a tragic event threatens to pull them apart. As Sophia pushes Ira to get over his bitterness, he takes an interest in her seemingly doomed relationship with Luke and tries to help her see what is truly important. Now they just need to get Lucas off that bull.
You know the actors in a mediocre movie are good when you spend a decent amount of time imagining them in roles befitting their talents, rather than what’s playing out on the screen. This is the case with Eastwood and Robertson. Neither stoic nor knurled like his legendary father (although equally as masculine), Eastwood nonetheless possesses the charisma to carry a more complex film. And like a young Meg Ryan, Robertson has the looks of a hot blonde and the personality of the only woman allowed to participate in a guy’s fantasy-football league.
Even with too many serendipitous plot resolutions and a most improbable ending, The Longest Ride is sure to be a rousing success among Sparks’ fans. People don’t go to these movies to be bummed out or to swallow the bitter pill of realism; they go to see a depiction of their romantic daydreams, to experience the adult version of playtime with Barbie and Ken, to cry sentimental tears, to whisper “awww” in the dark, even to swoon a little. For this we can say, “thank you, Nicholas Sparks.”