There are OK Nicholas Sparks movies and there are terrible ones audiences would quickly like to forget. (Is anyone still defending Channing Tatum's 9/11 love story “Dear John”?) The OK ones like “A Walk To Remember” and “The Notebook” we like to hold onto because they’re the perfect comfort food: warm and unchallenging, familiar and oozing with nostalgia. It harkens to an idealized world where true love conquers all (except terminal illnesses) and gives its audiences a safe space to cry over its melodramatic plot: a darkened theater.
The next Sparks weepie is decent at best, but perhaps less memorable than “Walk” or “The Notebook” before it. “The Longest Ride” follows ambitious art student Sophia (Britt Robertson) who is just months away from taking on the New York City internship of her dreams, and Luke (Scott Eastwood), a strapping young daredevil bull rider with a heart of gold and the honor code of a Southern gentleman. After their first date, Sophia rescues an elderly man named Ira (Alan Alda) who had driven off the road. Sophia stays with Ira in the ER to make sure he’s OK when she discovers passionate letters written from Ira to his deceased wife, Jewish refugee Ruth (Oona Chaplin in flashback sequences set in the ‘40s and ‘50s).
“The Longest Ride” toggles between the stories for over two hours, one focusing on the young kids trying to figure out their futures and the other starring a young love story from long ago, in the time of Nazis and wounded war heroes. The overall message is that this thing called life is the longest ride, and that it’s best to spend it with someone you love. No, stop right there, I want off this silly ride.
The two cornball scripts are a bit much to swallow, but one story is slightly more effective than the other. Since Ira and Ruth’s covers only their major relationship points, the melodrama feels paced pretty decently compared to the slow slog of the enveloping bull rider story. Ira and Ruth go through several spats and several happy moments before leaving the story with the reminder that their relationship wasn’t always perfect, and that’s life.
Not to spoil too much, but the Luke and Sophia saga gets solved unbearably easy to squeeze that last moment of “aww” out of the audience. It's done to make them go home feeling good, or maybe even guilty they cried during the movie. Add that to the tenuous scenes between Eastwood and Robertson, and “The Longest Ride” becomes too much work to enjoy only half the movie.
“The Longest Ride” does make for some interesting casting choices. The latest up-and-coming star trying her luck in a Sparks romantic drama is Robertson, who will enjoy quite the year with her upcoming appearance alongside George Clooney in “Tomorrowland.” Many of the other actors hail from cinematic dynasties. Scott Eastwood is Oscar winner Clint Eastwood’s son. Legendary Western director John Huston’s grandson, Jack, plays the good local Jewish boy Ira. Oona Chaplin, the granddaughter of famous silent comedian Charlie Chaplin, plays the Jewish ex-pat Ruth.
Unfortunately, the story-within-a-story format doesn’t build into anything other than a mediocre movie with a stale Nicholas Sparks message. Director George Tillman Jr. milks the drama for what he can, slowing down the eight-second bull rides and playing up the romantic tiffs. In Sparks’ idealized reality, all men are gallant and all women deserve to be loved. Love is something to sacrifice for, career included (which is not really a message that bears repeating in modern times). Thus far, all of Sparks’ movies have starred white heterosexual leads with varying amounts of chastity. His name has become its own brand of bland romantic melodrama, and “The Longest Ride” is just another notch on that belt. Your mileage may vary on this “Ride,” but it’s not a movie I’d revisit when in need of comfort.
"The Longest Ride" opens in theaters nationwide on Friday.