The cinematic universe of romance novelist Nicholas Sparks has become a theatrical institution best described as “Shyamalanian.” The films stick to a particular genre formula, but that’s part of the fun: an unlikely romance is challenged by dubious (or even better, insane) plot twists that all the same allow for a happily-ever-after-enough ending. The shtick is part of the appeal, as watching beautiful people fall in love only gets more exciting when you know they’ll have to overcome a coo-coo bananas curveball or two. As the 10th entry in a potentially-stagnating brand, The Longest Ride tries out something more daring than any ghost wife or organ transplant shuffle: being sweetly, uneventfully boring.
The structure of The Longest Ride is the biggest surprise it has in store, as the first twenty minutes or so are by-the-numbers Sparks. An artsy college senior, Sophia (Britt Robertson) meets a shit-kicking bull rider, Luke (Scott Eastwood), and the two hit it off promptly. Minor complications stand in their way, as a quickly approaching Big Job in New York makes Sophia reluctant to get involved with the handsome cowpoke, but darnnit if his gentlemanly charms doesn’t just win her over.
And that’s just fine. For a while, The Longest Ride doesn’t even try to reinvent the wheel, in part because it doesn’t really need to. Robertson and Eastwood don’t just hold to Sparksian standards of beauty, but have a goofy charm as performers, not just characters from opposite sides of the ranch fence. There’s a simplicity to the early interactions that emphasizes the sort of pleasantly inoffensive dialogue one usually encounters during early courtship. It’s an entirely amiable pairing of pretty, likeable enough people that make a will-they-won’t-they seem like an inevitable “will.”
Then things start to go narratively and literally off the road for The Longest Ride. After Luke saves the elderly Ira Levinson (Alan Alda) from a car accident, Sophia’s curiosity leads to her discovering the old man’s own romantic history through, you guessed it, a series of letters. As Sophia forms a bond with Ira, flashbacks take us to the North Carolina of the early ‘40s, when nice Jewish boy Ira (Jack Huston) begins an even more old-fashioned wooing of his ladylove, Ruth (Oona Chaplin).
From then on, The Longest Ride awkwardly moves back and forth through time as Luke and Sophia’s relationship faces hurdles broadly similar to Ruth and Ira’s own way back when. Besides colour filters designed to bring out the best looks of the performers (bright photography for the blue-eyed modern kids, sepia tones for the brown-eyed Levinsons), there’s little connecting the parallel stories. Trying to unite the narratives through similar emotional trajectories just makes the swapping more jarring; if someone ends a happy anecdote on a foreboding note like “I made her happy…for a while,” would you not immediately ask what happened next, or would you follow-up days later as Sophia does?
But this is a Nicholas Sparks movie, so if anything, the disconnect between stories just makes you even more desperate to know what narrative backflips will bring them together. With Luke determined to get over a mysterious old riding injury on his way to a world championship, Ira dealing with his own mysterious injury from World War II, and Ruth having fled Nazi-occupied Europe, the pieces are there for some high drama, and even higher logic.
Spoiler alert: there’s no twist. Well, no twist that’s not a late-game plot wrinkle attentive viewers will see coming a country mile away. It’s as if screenwriter Craig Bolotin removed the usual overwrought complications of a steamy romance novel, realized that would make the film too short, then bolted on a second such script to make up the time. What you wind up with are a pair of believable, low-stakes love stories that buck many trends of the genre. People make reasonable, informed decisions about their love lives, and as a result, all parties involved remain sympathetic.
This also makes The Longest Ride something of a snooze, as the world is already rotten with perfectly likeable, boring couples. The liveliest the film ever gets is during the riding sequences (which leave you more familiar with the fluid dynamics of bull snot than most will appreciate), Luke’s dreams of glory always threatening to inspire the sort of trashy rodeo melodrama mined so well by something like Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men. Yet it never does, and there’s something to be said for the courage of The Longest Ride’s simple convictions. The lacking polish of a Sparks film is present as ever (the camera angles of a YouTube video will inspire laughing fits, and the two-hour-plus runtime makes the film’s title far too literal), but The Longest Ride makes two humdrum love stories a decent trade for the single gonzo one we’re used to.