The Longest Ride is Nicholas Sparks' most ambitious novel. Instead of one couple, there's two — and he's even stretched out of his blond/Southern/Christian comfort zone to make the older pair Jewish. For balance, and for pandering to the powerful conservative audience who made American Sniper a megahit, his young heartthrob is a blond, Southern bull rider named Luke Collins who lives on a ranch with his momma. (Every viewer in my home state of Texas will coo when she shows off a baby picture of him wearing a cowboy hat in the bathtub.) Even cannier, Luke's played by Clint Eastwood's son, Scott Eastwood, who pairs his daddy's crinkle-cut eyes with abs you could use as a cattle guard.
Luke is a hero on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, a three-time champion forced to take a yearlong break when a monster named Rango gored him in Las Vegas. Director George Tillman Jr. makes full use of the lights, black leather and glamour of this modern breed of rock & roll riders. As a bonus, Tillman and screenwriter Craig Bolotin have a pair of announcers who serve as a countrified Greek chorus, spouting a continual patter of Things We Need to Know About Luke. In case we're blind, they assure us that he's "young, easy on the eyes and a magician on the bull," and later, in case we're blind to his stakes, they caution, "This could kill him!"
In a near-deadly meet-cute, Luke completes a successful eight-second ride, gets chased to the railing by a beast, and locks eyes with an art student named Sophia (Britt Robertson), dragged there by her sorority sisters to slum it with some sexy wranglers. When he loses his cowboy hat, she picks it up — the dustbowl inversion of a mademoiselle dropping her handkerchief — and at the after-hoedown, he adjusts the brim on her head and offers to buy Sophia a domestic beer.
The two have nothing in common except golden good looks and a fondness for looking at each other and grinning. Still, Robertson and Eastwood do that well enough that we buy their chemistry. Robertson has a great giggle, and Tillman cranks up the sexual tension as Luke plonks her on a practice barrel strung up in his barn to teach this city girl how to straddle a wild ride. Soon after, she decides pop music gives her headaches and switches the radio to country. But it's harder to give up her plan to move to Manhattan after graduation, even though Luke fits in as well with her art-world friends as "Crocodile" Dundee. Asked his opinion on a gallery full of squiggles, he jokes, "I think there's more bullshit here than where I work."
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Tillman has fun contrasting an old-fashioned gentleman like Luke with the frat bros at Sophia's college, soft man-children in pastel polo shirts who text late at night instead of courting her with dinner dates and flowers. But even Luke could learn a love lesson from widower Ira Levinson (Alan Alda), who literally crashes into their lives with a box of love letters he wrote to his wife, Ruth, a Jewish immigrant from Vienna, from 1940 until her death. Jack Huston and a ferociously vibrant Oona Chaplin play Ira and Ruth in flashbacks where they have to tangle with traumas larger than Luke's lack of a college education. (If you're counting, that's three descendants of Hollywood royalty in the cast.) After Ira and Ruth are engaged, he's shipped off to World War II, where he's shot someplace vague that makes him sterile. Instead of children, they collect modern art, a plot thread fated to tie in to Luke and Sophia's romance. Perhaps it's a hint that when Tillman shoots a raging bull in slo-mo, its snot flings across the screen like a Jackson Pollock.
It's easy to tease a Nicholas Sparks movie. It's harder to admit that he's good at his niche — and has a string of 10 films, nearly all profitable, to prove it, even if every one has been savaged by critics. (His average Rotten Tomatoes score is 25 percent.) He's thoroughly uncynical about love, like a 19-year-old child bride doodling hearts on her wedding invitations. He believes love is so powerful that it can salvage lives and control the weather. Twice here, when characters get their hearts scuffed, thunder claps and it begins to rain. Yet the story's emphasis is on choice, not fate or coincidence. The people at its center are kept apart not by scheming bad guys or boneheaded misunderstandings but by a genuine concern for one another's happiness. Ira can no more pressure Ruth into a life without children than Luke can ask Sophia to give up her career.
The structure is clunky. Retro sequences are launched by Sophia bursting into Ira's bedroom after a fight with Luke and asking him to "take my mind off of it." Still, a good romance can make us endure an implausible plot as long as the leads have heat. Luke and Sophia's connection feels true. Who cares about the mechanics? By the time The Longest Ride runs right off a cliff, we're already strapped in to the passenger seat. Give in and enjoy the plunge.
THE LONGEST RIDE | Directed by George Tillman | Written by Craig Bolotin | 20th Century Fox | Citywide