There are variables in the chemistry of a Nicholas Sparks film, but the basic formula has seldom changed through films like The Notebook, Dear John and The Lucky One. Even the posters for these movies often look indistinguishable from one another, except for the two actors pictured. The Longest Ride is the tenth Sparks adaptation to hit the big screen and though it sticks to what you’ll know if you’ve seen more than one of the others, it’s not necessarily a formula that’s in need of fixing.
Stop us if this sounds like we’ve done a find and replace on some other plot summary, but this time we follow Sophia, (Britt Robertson) who’s about to start a prestigious internship at a gallery in New York, just as soon as she finishes studying art at a North Carolina university. But then, she’s dragged to a bull riding contest by her sorority sisters, where she has a meet-cute with handsome championship contender Luke. (Scott Eastwood)
Despite a conflict in their immediate plans for the future, they do go on a date, where they do all the usual first date stuff, like picnicking and getting to know each other by a campfire, and then less commonly, saving an elderly man, Ira (Alan Alda) from the wreckage of his car after a serious accident.
Their chance encounter with Ira brings them back together over the following months, as Sophia continually visits him in hospital to read him letters about his courtship with his wife, Ruth. Through flashbacks, we discover the tragic story of the couple, (Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin) while Sophia and Luke try to overcome their own differences in the present.
To say that this film is inoffensive is not the same as calling it bland. It’s true enough that you can trace the beats of Sparks’ hugely profitable house-style all the way through this, and that “Longest” is the operative part of the title for a movie that clocks in at 139 minutes, a prospect that may have the less romantically inclined amongst us groaning in despair.
But love it or loathe it, the film is undeniably one of the more cinematic efforts from this particular canon. The dual romances could have easily have been cleft into two much slighter movies, but aside from emotional resonance, they represent a more ambitious approach than is necessarily required as presented by screenwriter Craig Bolotin and director George Tillman Jr.
Kudos also goes to cinematographer David Tattersall, (best known for his work with George Lucas and Frank Darabont) who brings some new tricks to the uniform look of these movies, particularly in the bull riding sequences. Each bout looks exciting, even if the futility of the sport gets an altogether rougher ride from the script. In terms of pacing, this is as laidback as any of the other deliberately paced adaptations, but there’s an inner life here that’s missing in other films of its ilk.
Mainly, that comes from Robertson, who was one of the better parts of the recent Tomorrowland and will hopefully find a more solid launchpad for her career in years to come. Her Sophia has lots of warm and endearing scenes with Alda, an old hand who brings some gravitas to this schmaltzy material, and she also builds a smouldering rapport with Eastwood.
It may just be a coincidence, but when we’re talking about a movie this contrived, the casting of Eastwood, Huston and Chaplin (all descendants of iconic directors Clint, John and Charlie respectively) is probably part of its determined drive for old-fashioned charm.
It takes its sweet time in jumping between past and present, but despite Robertson’s best efforts, the flashbacks are the real meat of the story here. Huston and Chaplin are irresistible together and Ira and Ruth’s story, played out as a cautionary tale to our modern star-crossed lovers, brings some gorgeous period detail and real emotional grounding.
By comparison, the present day storyline is predictable right up to the patented Nicholas Sparks twist ending. It’s hard to imagine that anything will ever top the emotionally bonkers epilogue of 2013’s Safe Haven and while there’s nothing so supernatural here, it comes out of the left-field in a way that wraps things up just a little too neatly after such a large investment in running time.
The Longest Ride makes fine fodder for the Nicholas Sparks drinking game and it’s obviously not so revolutionary as to attract any sober detractors of this very specific romantic sub-genre. But it boasts sincere and tactile work from all concerned, ensuring that it’s still a cut above your usual phoned-in romantic drama.
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