Film Review: ‘The Longest Ride’

the-longest-ride
Image Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Two sets of star-crossed lovers weather an onslaught of personal crises in North Carolina. Yes, it's time for another Nicholas Sparks adaptation.

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.

Film Review: 'The Longest Ride'

Reviewed at Regal E-Walk, New York, April 2, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 128 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Temple Hill/Nicholas Sparks production. Produced by Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Sparks, Theresa Park. Executive producers, Michael Inperato Stabile, Robert Teitel, Tracey Nyberg. Co-producer, H.H. Cooper.

Crew

Directed by George Tillman Jr. Screenplay, Craig Bolotin, based upon the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Camera (Technicolor, Arri Alexa HD, widescreen), David Tattersall; editor, Jason Ballantine; music, Mark Isham; music supervisor, Season Kent; production designer, Mark E. Garner; art director, Geoffrey S. Grimsman; set decorator, Chuck Potter; set designer, Chris Biddle; costume designer, Mary Claire Hannan; sound, Carl S. Rudisill; sound designer, Derek Vanderhorst; supervising sound editor, Donald Sylvester; re-recording mixers, Andy Nelson, Jim Bolt; visual effects supervisor, Jack Braver; visual effects, Method Studios, Phosphene; CosFX Films, Technicolor; bull riding stunt coordinator, Troy Brown; stunt coordinators, G. Peter King, JJ Danshaw, Ben P. Jensen; associate producers, James Paul, Mitchell Smith; assistant director, H.H. Cooper; casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham.

With

Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin, Alan Alda, Lolita Davidovich, Melissa Benoist, Gloria Reuben, Arthur Kennedy, Rango the Bull.

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  1. Bee says:

    Actors of fully Jewish background: Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Erin Heatherton, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Esti Ginzburg, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Emory Cohen, Scott Mechlowicz, Odeya Rush, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

    Andrew Garfield and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of their parents are).

    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Ryan Potter, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, and Harrison Ford (whose maternal grandparents were both Jewish, despite those Hanukkah Song lyrics).

    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr. and Sean Penn were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer and Chris Pine are part Jewish.

    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

  2. Shel says:

    Insulting your readers…. Nice.

  3. Major says:

    I hate reviews.
    Height of effite snobbery.
    Only read them to confirm my bias.
    But movie sounds good to me.
    And a fan of nepotism.
    Ml

  4. Barry Ratcliffe says:

    I appreciate your in depth review and it is great to know there is a movie out there that is a true, kind, romantic, sexy, fun, and clean alternative. This film captures the deep and beautiful emotions of love and life:)
    And for the record, you mentioned the climactic auction, I am the auctioneer:)
    Barry Ratcliffe

  5. These reviews are observant but just way too long given content and ultimate opinion.

    • Rhoda Marr says:

      Not to mention this critic’s ridiculous “way with words” desperately trying to show how expansive their grasp of the English language is. Is it good or not? Just say so. Jeezzzz

  6. Michelle says:

    I love you. Thank you so much for this review. Your comments re: Sparks’ inability to handle Judaism (and the inability of anyone adapting it to handle Judaism) are spot-on.

  7. tlsnyder42 says:

    Another silly, superficial, elitist review that fails to examine the real problems with the movie, or give any proper acknowledgement of how good this movie really was, especially considering the genre.

  8. Buz Kohan says:

    That was a quick fix, but now anyone reading the review will wonder what I was talking about.

  9. Buz Kohan says:

    Don’t they “weather” the onslaught rather than “whether” it?

  10. tsmithmpls says:

    “Two sets of star-crossed lovers whether an onslaught of personal crises in North Carolina.” The word you’re looking for in this case is “weather”, not “whether”. Geez.

  11. Sarah McIntyre says:

    I can’t wait to see this movie it looks so good I’ve been trying to get tickets in advance for weeks so hopefully I can get them tomarrow

  12. Bill says:

    “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.”

    Why does Variety insist on assigning critics predisposed to dislike a movie or genre of movies to review them? That’s not exactly the best way to get an unbiased review as a result.

  13. JK says:

    Alan Alda, in his 70s, plays a character portrayed in 1940 by Jack Huston, who is in his mid-30s, which would make Alda more than 100 years old, since the contemporary story in the film is set in the present day.

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