The flowery prose of Nicholas Sparks has singlehandedly kept Kleenex in business since “The Notebook” made the former pharmaceutical salesman the King of the Weepie. The latest big-screen Sparksisms—tearstained romantic letters, lines like, “Love requires sacrifice… always,” and passionate make-out sessions—come in the form of “The Longest Ride,” an intergenerational romance starring Clint-spawn Scott Eastwood, Britt Robertson, Oona Chaplin and Alan Alda.
This time around Sparks tells of “Two stories separated by time, connected by fate.”
The first couple is twenty-something sorority sister Sophia Danko (Robertson) an art major—“I love art,” she gushes, “I love everything about it.”—lured to the rodeo by her housemate with the promise of “the hottest guys you’ve ever seen.” There she lays eyes on a cowboy named Luke (Eastwood)—aren’t all cowboys named Luke?—a bull rider trying to make a comeback after almost being killed the last time he competed. They lock eyes and you know it won’t be long before they’re line dancing off to happily-ever-after land. “Before I met you the closest I got to cattle was steak,” she coos.
Fate brings them in contact with ninety-year-old widower Ira Levinson (Alda). Driving home from a date the newly besotted couple spots a nasty car crash on a remote road. They rescue Ira, but the accident has left him near death. The only thing that keeps him going is the urging of his late wife Ruth (Chaplin).
That’s right, dead Ruth gets Sparksified, brought back to life as an ephemeral spirit through the reading of old letters (and sepia toned flashbacks) that recount their life and the ups and downs of marriage.
Brought together by circumstance, the couple’s lives mix and match, as the stories—one existing in memory, the other at the rodeo—converge and they learn about sacrifice, bull ridin’ and the power of love to overcome the challenges life throws in the way of romance.
“The Longest Ride” made me cry, but not in the way Nicholas Sparks intended.
The movie takes place in a world where ranch hands and Warhols co-exist and couples are expected to walk off into the sunset hand in hand. In other words it’s Über Harlequin; an alternate universe romance where two tangentially related stories can be fused together by tears and warm group hugs.
There are parallels between the tales—both men are North Carolina “country bumpkins” who fall for women from out of state, both couples take pictures in photo booths, both have “I don’t know how to make this work” moments and Sophia is about to go to New York to intern at a gallery while Ira left town to go to war—but mostly the stories are tied together by an abundance of Sparksian clichés. There’s the “elevated kiss”—most famously used in “The Notebook” when Ryan Gosling hoisted Rachel McAdams over his head and locked lips—which is overused here as are the obligatory “lake scene,” longing glances and reliance on epistolary to tell the story.
Ira’s letters to Ruth make up the backbone of the romance, but they don’t exactly make sense. To push the story forward they are written in a weird stilted way—“I took over my dad’s booming business while you taught at school”—that appears to be telling Ruth a story she was already familiar with, you know, having lived it and all. It’s a strange way to provide exposition and makes the movie narration heavy.
Stranger still are some of director George Tillman Jr.’s choices. The cross cutting between love making and a bull riding lesson may be the least subtle thing ever and couldn’t feel any less romantic. Add to that one of the worst war scenes in recent memory, close-ups of rage-a-holic bulls and you walk away not feeling filled with romance, but as though you have messed with the bull and gotten the horn.