The Longest Ride is a Nicholas Sparks story with a whole other Nicholas Sparks story inside it. For the price of one movie ticket, you get double the sun-dappled Carolina beaches, sad backstories, fatal diagnoses, parental figures, Meet Cutes, smoldering looks, gentle breezes through beautiful fields, make out sessions under falling water, PG-13 sex scenes, and sentimental declarations of love. If you like Sparks love stories and prefer to get quantity over quality, you’re in luck. This isn’t the best or the worst of its ilk, but over the course of two hours it sure serves up a whole lot of what you’d expect. I haven't seen every adaptation of his novels, but I feel like I have.
This time, we meet a cute art student (Britt Robertson), a senior at Wake Forest about to graduate and move to New York City. She reluctantly goes with her sorority sisters to see some bull riding where she meets a strapping young rider (Scott Eastwood) who takes a liking to her. He asks her on a date. On the way home from a picturesque picnic, they see an old man (Alan Alda) who has had a medical emergency and crashed his car. They get him to a hospital. Over the next few weeks, the young couple – totally in love, duh – tries to make a go of it, despite her upcoming move and his riding career. Meanwhile, she periodically visits the older guy who, happy for company, tells her the story of his past great love.
And so screenwriter Craig Bolotin, working from Sparks’ novel, juggles two plotlines. The contemporary lovers have to decide if they have a future while lengthy flashbacks tells us about the oldster’s younger days (when he was Jack Huston) and how World War II caused problems in his relationship with the love of his life (Oona Chaplin). Luckily there’s never a feeling of lopsidedness, since both plots are of equal middling quality. There’s never a desire to rush back to the other characters’ situations, as I was never wholly invested in either, what with their thin, typical arcs. Will WWII injuries threaten an impending marriage? Will bull riding rattle the poor hunk’s brains too much to keep his girlfriend? I think you can guess.
But by cutting between the two sparse, predictable stories at moments of peak boredom, it kept my interest just barely afloat. When one couple’s plight gets too dull, you get to focus on the others for a bit. There are similarities between the two stories – both women love art, while their artless men are following in their father’s footsteps – that aren’t plumbed for any depth. It must’ve been hard work to present a story balancing past and present and make sure all dichotomies come up empty. There’s no point of view here, just sap of half-decent consistency.
Director George Tillman Jr. (Faster, Soul Food) treats both halves of the movie with equal weight and a sturdy hand. He’s got the schmaltzy swooning part of Sparks down, with gooey lighting equally flattering to rural landscapes and the stars’ skin. While the material is simply a pile up of tropes, clichés, and conventions, the stars sell it. Robertson is fresh-faced and charming, while Alda breathes warmth and comfort into every crinkled grin. Eastwood – a taciturn block – and Huston and Chaplin – seemingly ported in from a better melodrama – hold their own as well, although given less charm to play they don’t leave much of an impact. Look at their surnames, though. What an unusually strong connection to Hollywood’s past this picture has. It’s a movie full of movie star lineage and plotlines that would’ve been old hat back when the studios were new.