The Longest Ride (2015)

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I wish I could tell you it would all be happy ever after. Not everybody gets that.”

At this point, we all should know how a Nicholas Sparks adaptation is going to play out. Young love tested by the clashing of two separate worlds, ultimately ending in happily ever after. There is little deviation in his formulaic storyworlds. Yet, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sometimes it’s manipulative, at others it’s derivative of his own material, but Sparks always manages to imbue a sense of genuine emotion into his writing. He knows how to make us laugh, and he definitely knows how to make us cry. This isn’t perfect, and at times comes off as two movies edited into one, but it’s a more challenging approach to his common territory than has been put on-screen thus far. It’s hokey, sentimental, and at times all too painless. The Longest Ride is a movie where any skepticism or reservations should be left outside the theater door. It’s hard to undermine a film that evokes honest feelings in an otherwise sparse age of romanticism.

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In this iteration of the star-crossed lovers story we first meet the smoldering Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood), a former world champion bull rider mounting a comeback following a dangerous injury. His focus is on regaining his place at the top, at least until Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) catches his eye. She’s a college senior on the cusp of graduation and a big move from the picturesque North Carolina backdrop to an internship with a Manhattan art gallery. Sophia’s closeted and quiet, pressured by her sorority sisters to join them for a night out to enjoy some ranch hand entertainment. Their meet-cute is that of a fairy tale, borrowing from Cinderella a bit as Luke, as handsome a man as they come, finds a woman unlike the rest to put his cowboy hat on. It’s a rushed relationship, but the two have decent enough chemistry to make it believable.

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The other half of the puzzle involves Ira Levinson (Alan Alda). He’s an elderly widower, and after having a heart attack while at the wheel, is saved by the two “friends” and enters the picture. Ira’s story unfolds through letters written to the great love of his life, Ruth (Oona Chaplin). Sophia visits and reads to him, tying together the young lovebirds with a man who has lost his partner, but has not lost his love. While Sophia and Luke are the leads, it is Ira’s affinity for Ruth, and vice versa, that piles on the adoration with an unabashed earnestness. They are more developed and simply feel more real as people and as soul mates. While there is a shared relational dynamic between both the past and present, it’s harder to resist the nostalgic charm of a bygone era than it is to inject passion into the more detached now.

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The Longest Ride is a chore to review and recap because, unlike the rest of Sparks’ work, there is so much going on here. It’s convoluted, messy, and although the cuts back and forth are well done, they’re far from seamless. Story miscues don’t take away from what he does well as a writer though, which is creating strong-minded characters that the audience can identify with. Anymore, romantic dramas take away the power of choice from its characters and instead relinquish them to puppets acting without motive. The Longest Ride is a sappy, oftentimes cheesy affair, but it takes itself and its story so seriously that you eventually buy in.

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Admittedly, I was drawn to this movie because of the leads, mostly Robertson. She’s a delightful young actress with a string of fine performances. As for Eastwood, he’s a work in progress. Still, even as a guy, you can’t deny his true leading man looks that all the women will swoon over. Their curbside appeal is second to none. That’s mostly where it ends though, as director George Tillman Jr. and Sparks place a slapdash emphasis on their youthful bodies and sensual lust rather than a foolproof outline of modern relationships. Conversely, Chaplin and Jack Huston shine as the vibrantly, and often powerfully magnetic depictions of seasoned partners in their long gone youth. We get the intimacy from their letters (rather than texts and voicemails between Luke and Sophia), and more background in a shorter amount of time. The bull rider and the art aficionado may be the more attractive draw, but it’s Ira and Ruth who have the better story. The Longest Ride could have instead been called The Greatest Ride had it simplified itself. And sure, it can be mushy and stiff and unoriginal, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t manage to inspire love in a way that only the movies can.

“Love requires sacrifice.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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