How far have Hollywood romances fallen as a result of debacles such as How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days, Fool’s Gold, and The Big Wedding? This far: the sight of a handsome man bringing a bouquet of flowers to a date is suddenly cause for excitement.
It’s one reason Hollywood keeps cranking out movies adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels while all but abandoning the rom-com genre. Sparks’ stories can be clunky, old-fashioned and sentimental, but there’s something in our collective DNA that responds to them all the same.
That certainly held true at a recent screening of The Longest Ride, the latest Sparks novel to reach the big screen.
Our hero, Luke (Scott Eastwood), is meeting the lovely Sophia (Brittany Robertson) for their first date. The strapping bull rider arrives with a bouquet of flowers, a gesture that sent an electric charge through a test screening audience for the film.
How musty. How old-fashioned. How … refreshing.
The Longest Ride is all of the above, as well as predictable and rigged with an absurd twist to ensure a happier-than-happy ending. It’s a pleasure to watch all the same, unless you’ve found every previous Sparks adaptation unbearable. In that case, falling for The Longest Ride is darn near impossible.
Eight-Plus Seconds of Flirting
We first meet Luke astride a bull, but it’s not long before a riding injury catapults the story forward a full year. He’s on the comeback trail, and that’s where he meets Sophia, a college senior about to leave for a Big Apple arts internship.
Sparks fly, the kind that an upcoming move can’t dampen. Their courtship is interrupted when they rescue an old man from a car wreck. Ira (Alan Alda, adding gravitas and a wink of humor) ends up telling Sophia about his own love story with Ruth (Oona Chaplin) circa World War II.
Yes, Sparks is trafficking in dueling romances as he did before with The Notebook. And darned if the flashbacks aren’t even more beguiling than the Luke/Sophia coupling.
The young Ira, played by Jack Huston, is besotted by the aspiring painter. It’s their love story, and the obstacles they faced along the way, that sets the blueprint for the young couple to follow, should they choose to do so.
The Longest Ride sticks closely to the Sparks template: gauzy photography, slow-burn flirtations, and a few one-dimensional characters along the way. It’s still romantic in the very best of ways, and our young stars have chemistry to spare. It’s also a reminder of what we’re missing in our hookup/texting culture.
When Luke first asks Sophia out, her response is borderline shock.
“You mean like a date? . . . Wow,” she says. When Luke escorts Sophia out of her sorority house for said date, Sophia’s sisters gleefully rush to the window as if gawking at one of the seven wonders of the world. What a shame that a simple courtship ritual has become such a relic.
Sophia is clueless about Luke’s Southern gentleman ways, down to his cowboy hat—which he gives to her in their ‘meet cute’ introduction.
Yet the story doesn’t make him an oddball in any way. In fact, Sophia’s cluelessness is the target of light mirth. Later, when he mocks the art world she’s so willing to embrace, once more the story takes his side in a firm but gentle manner.
Who knew a Hollywood production could treat Red State audiences so kindly?
What should bring crowds to the theaters is how well the leads click. Eastwood, the spittin’ image of his famous pappy, is all aw-shucks charm and sincerity. Robertson plays the thoroughly modern gal whose heart is open to … possibilities.
Yet Huston and Chaplin still outstrip them via those heart-tugging flashbacks. Yes, we’re still suckers for World War II stories, but it’s how the couple copes through tragedy that cements our interest.
The Longest Ride also offers some crisp, if straightforward, bull-riding segments. And the story’s potential calamity—he’ll die if he gets on another bull—smacks of storytelling convenience.
But that’s Sparks. All his tales smack of similar conveniences. He just won’t skimp on the Kleenex moments, even if it takes some heavy dramatic lifting to get there.
Like Father, Like Son?
Is the young Eastwood a true movie star? We’ll need to see him show off more range first. For now, his resemblance to his father is uncanny, and the pair share a slow-burn charisma that’s impossible to deny. Actors have gotten by with far, far less in recent years.
We might look back on The Longest Ride as the start of a second Eastwood generation of movie stars. At the very least, the film is a reminder that old-fashioned dating is always a winner at the cineplex.