Author Nicholas Sparks works with a very simple formula he regularly cashes in on, so long as people remember he wrote The Notebook (never mind the fact that the book and movie are totally different). After reading his latest novel, The Longest Ride, my fears arose at how this bloated, ridiculous novel could be turned into snything more than a painfully slow and stupid motion picture. Surprisingly, director George Tillman, Jr. and screenwriter Craig Bolotin appropriately condensed the book down to its foundation, eliminating countless moments of unnecessary bloat, crafting a picture that’s watchable, if far from perfection. The film is right on par with Sparks’ filmic output, but the added addition of strong performances from Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin, and Britt Robertson keep this from being pure torture for those with a casual interest.
Sophia (Robertson) is that strange college student/sorority girl who actually enjoys “studying” (although outside of one scene there’s little studying taking place). She goes to the local rodeo with her friends where she meets rising bull rider/full time stud Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood). The two come from “completely different worlds” – which you’re reminded of constantly – but vow to make their blossoming relationship work. Concurrently, Sophia’s friendship with an old man named Ira (Alan Alda) and his past with his wife, Ruth (Chaplin), illustrate to Sophia the sacrifices one makes for love.
Sparks’ work speaks for itself, and the audience who continuously drinks this up like punch at the prom will willingly get in line for this come opening day. As someone who suffered through the book, a competent screenwriter makes all the difference. Bolotin’s script sculpts the finished product into Sparks at his best, removing unnecessary plot points like Sophia’s stalker boyfriend or the weird, downright egotistical way Sophia treats Luke because she’s a “City Girl.” At over two hours the title isn’t kidding about how long said ride is, but stripping away everything unimportant leads to a far more cohesive narrative than the source material gives you. That’s not to say this is perfect or enjoyable for those who hate Sparks’ work already, but it’s good to see a screenwriter figure out what works and what doesn’t (take note E.L. James!).
Similar to the novel, the book is divided into two separate stories: Luke and Sophia’s romance, and the flashbacks involving Ira Levinson’s (Alda as an old man and Huston as his younger incarnation) and his wife Ruth. Ira and Ruth’s plotline borrows so liberally from The Notebook, with its use of another 1940s WWII-era time period, as to play like a bad remake, right down to having Huston and Chaplin frolic in the surf like a latter-day Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.
Huston and Chaplin are the film’s strongest assets, and, honestly, the script should have focused on them from the get-go. Huston is charming in the way Eastwood’s cockiness and “old-fashioned” gentility thinks it is, and Chaplin doesn’t grovel for her man’s love like Robertson. Ira and Ruth are two characters playing adults in love, not teens playing house. The book plays Ruth’s desire for children as a serious detriment to her relationship with Ira, turning against her, but here, Ira and Ruth are compassionate, mutually understanding characters. When Ira declares to Ruth that he’d rather they separate than have her be unhappy, it’s far more romantic than the outright sex between Robertson and Eastwood’s characters. Alan Alda, as an older Ira, is equally compelling, with his fun “get off my lawn” old man shtick seguing into genuine fondness for Robertson’s Sophia.
Even Robertson isn’t bad as leading lady Sophia, another character heavily softened from the printed page. Although she too often seems to be forcing Eastwood’s Luke to love her, and her desire for him to quit bull riding seems ridiculous to Sparks’ hyper-macho sensibilities (damn women with their worrying), Robertson is on par with the likes of other Sparks actresses, particularly McAdams and Amanda Seyfried.
This leaves the elephant in the room: Scott Eastwood. It’s odd no one’s hyping the fact that three different actors, all with classic Hollywood family trees, are in The Longest Ride. Maybe this being Eastwood’s major studio debut, and the fact that his abs run the majority of his scenes, causes most to assume he’s the only progeny worth noticing. And I’m not lying, Eastwood is in the running for “most gratuitous shirtlessness” next to Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat (the only time these two will ever be held up side-by-side). The audience alone doesn’t swoon over Eastwood, at times it seems the cameraman is, with shots lingering on Eastwood’s backside or shooting up his body a la Michael Bay eyeing Megan Fox. In fact, it’s almost refreshing watching his character be objectified like a female normally wood.
The man’s good looks certainly overshadow any dramatic appeal his acting could possess…but the character feels like Eastwood playing himself already. It’s laughable how the PBR announcers, who document Luke’s bull-riding prowess with all the tact of a bull stabbing you in the eye with their fortune-cookie wisdom, describe Luke as “easy on the eyes and a magician on a bull.” That about sums up our leading man. Luke Collins is a Sparks “good ‘ol boy” who can’t fathom having a girl call him first or buy him a drink. He calls it “old-fashioned,” I call it a man threatened by a woman daring to be upfront with a guy. He also falls into the typical Sparks conceit of being threatened by a woman with a career that’s actually….logical, realistic, take your pick. Luke never supports Sophia, going so far as to “joke” with her potential boss over how bullshit art is. Sorry it’s not a velvet painting of a steer, guy! The ending, which is carried over from the novel (unfortunately), leaves audiences with the message that relationships work best when a guy gets everything he wants because he’ll find some way to share his spoils with you, eventually turning them into something that’ll make you happy….hopefully.
In the grand scheme of things, The Longest Ride is far from the worst offender in the Nicholas Sparks canon; it’s just another Nicholas Sparks adaptation in general that limits its potential. These films have a very strict formula and The Longest Ride, in spite of condensing an overly elongated narrative into a palatable trifle, does little to deviate from what’s worked in the past, to the point of openly reappropriating past moments from other Sparks films. Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin are stellar, proving they work well in the romance genre. Scott Eastwood’s hot. It was better than I anticipated, especially in contrast to the novel, but it never rose above being just a passable Sparks film.