As spring perennials go, a new Nicholas Sparks movie has come to seem as inevitable as tax day and allergy season, and only mildly less irritating to the senses. Though the character names and model-perfect faces may change (ever so slightly), the place (coastal North Carolina) remains the same, as do the trials and tribulations facing the star-crossed lovers who traverse its shores. The formula is by now as proven (and critic-proof) as Marvel or Tyler Perry — so why tinker with it in the least? Rest assured, “The Longest Ride” does nothing of the sort as it parallels the fates of two couples from different eras navigating the usual Sparks-ian gauntlet of war, class relations, cataclysmic accidents and life-altering medical conditions. Appealing performances by a trio of second- and third-generation Hollywood kids keep this three-hankie twaddle more bearable than it deserves, but “Ride” will surely go the longest with audiences for whom this is not their first Sparks rodeo.
Based on Sparks’ 2013 novel of the same title, “The Longest Ride” may be most notable for featuring the first lead performance by Scott Eastwood, the youngest son of Clint (who cast him in supporting roles in “Gran Torino” and “Invictus”) and an uncanny doppelganger for his father as a “Rawhide”-era contract player — a bit less squinty and gravelly-voiced, but with an effortless rugged charisma that also, at times, recalls the late Paul Walker. He’s comfortably cast as one of Sparks’ favored man’s men, a professional rodeo rider named Luke Collins, seen in the movie’s early moments getting ejected in particularly brutal fashion from a bucking bronc called Rango (credited “as himself”) and landing within a few inches of his life.
That opening echoes the greatest of all rodeo movies, Nicholas Ray’s “The Lusty Men” (1952), in which Robert Mitchum’s injured ex-rider becomes reluctant mentor to a rising young star (Arthur Kennedy). But here, real cowboys like Luke don’t let things like a traumatic head injury keep them down, especially when there’s a family farm and widowed mother (a very good Lolita Davidovich) to support. So, one year later, he’s back in the saddle again, where he catches the eye of Sophia (Britt Robertson), a Wake Forest art-history major on the eve of graduating and starting an internship with a tony New York gallery.
Soon, a summer fling has sprung (Sparks doesn’t really do winter), and their first date is a doozy: dinner followed by an unscheduled stop in a roadside ditch — not so Luke can cop a feel, but so he can rescue the disoriented elderly man (Alan Alda) who’s crashed his now-burning car during a heavy downpour. Sophia pitches in too, rescuing a box of old letters from the passenger seat just in the nick of time. And the stage is set for one of Sparks’ bifurcated then-and-now narratives, in which the lessons of the past help to guide the action of the present.
So far, so “The Notebook,” and (like almost everything Sparks does) so very WASP. But lo and behold, “The Longest Ride” turns out to be the author’s salvo to the diversity crowd. The Alda character is revealed as one Ira Levinson, a Jewish nonagenarian whose coveted letters tell of his 60-year romance with wife Ruth (Oona Chaplin), an Austrian emigre who arrived in America at the onset of World War II. And as Sophia reads the letters aloud to a recovering Ira, that love story plays out in sepia-toned flashbacks rendered with all the lived-in period feel of a Restoration Hardware doorknob.
Screenwriter Craig Bolotin (“Black Rain”) and director George Tillman Jr. (“Soul Food,” “Faster”) lay on the Judaism thick but unconvincingly, as if cultural specificity could be measured in phlegmatic Borscht Belt accents and references to Shabbos. Alda, Chaplin and Jack Huston (who plays the young Ira) may be the least likely onscreen Jews since Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell played Polish-Jewish brothers in the Holocaust drama “Defiance,” while the raven-haired, olive-skinned Chaplin (daughter of Geraldine and the Chilean cinematographer Patricio Castilla) also looks about as Austrian as Frida K. When the movie arrives at a couple of scenes set during Friday services at the local synagogue, Tillman shoots them as if they were some exotic tribal ritual. And though the year is 1940, and Ruth’s reasons for fleeing Europe patently obvious, the name Hitler is never uttered once. (The movie’s credited “Jewish studies consultant” may wish to omit this one from her resume.)
Yet, despite its raging inauthenticity, the past proves more engaging than the present in “The Longest Ride,” in part because there’s something real at stake in Ira and Ruth’s relationship — namely, her desire to have a large family and his inability to oblige (owing to the complications of a war injury). The other reason is that Huston (grandson of John) and Chaplin (even burdened with her silly accent) have terrific chemistry together, every one of their smoldering glances worth a few hundred pages of Sparks’ purple prose. Meanwhile, back in the present, Luke and Sophia steam up several different shades of stained glass in a shower scene that evokes the late softcore maestro Zalman King, and try to figure out if there is enough room in their relationship for Rango the bull and New York (which, whenever anyone mentions it, sounds as distant and forbidding as Siberia). Trust that Sparks — a master of the outlandish, deus-ex-machina finale — will find a way.
If “The Longest Ride” is partly Sparks’ tone-deaf valentine to God’s chosen people, it’s also a jeremiad of sorts against the big-city elites (including, no doubt, this very critic) whom he feels wield too much cultural influence in our country. Like Sophia, Ruth is an art aficionado, who compensates for her childless womb by amassing an enviable collection of contemporary masters (Matisse, Motherwell, Passlof, Rothko), much of it acquired from nearby Black Mountain College (a reminder that North Carolina has cutting-edge culture, too). But Sparks and the filmmakers can’t help taking a few cheap potshots at “squiggly lines on a canvas” and devising an art-auction climax that effectively says the sentimental value of a single unremarkable, representational canvas is worth more than all of the world’s abstract marvels combined. That scene may qualify as Sparks baring his writerly soul to the crowd. But most of the movie’s target demo is sure to be too busy swooning over Eastwood’s bared abs to even notice.
Production designer Mark E. Garner and costume designer Mary Claire Hannan’s period re-creations have that overly shiny-and-new look of a model home or furniture showroom, as if everything in the frame were untouched by human hands — a problem exacerbated by the plastic, washed-out textures of David Tattersall’s digital cinematography.