Nicholas Sparks adaptations are their own ecosystem. Though characters never overlap, they might as well all exist in a shared universe — one with its own logic, its own attitudes, and its own idea of fan service. The relationships are interchangeable and easy-to-assemble: Sometimes it’s the boy who’s got the chip on his shoulder, sometimes it’s the girl; sometimes class gets in the way, sometimes war, sometimes differing worldviews. Love always wins out, naturally, but often it does so ironically; Sparks is not one to shy away from killing off a lover or two, which occasionally gives the stories some much-needed suspense.
Seen in that light, The Longest Ride is actually one of the more competent Sparks films in some years — a far cry from the creaky noir of Safe Haven, the awkwardly backloaded melodrama of The Best of Me, or the phony brooding of The Lucky One. It goes down smoothly, if blandly, like an air-flavored milkshake. The present-day romance involves hotshot bull-rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood, who looks like the secret love-child of his dad Clint and Zac Efron), attempting to mount a comeback one year after a harrowing accident that nearly ended his life; and Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson, who looks like Jennifer Lawrence’s less quirky cousin), an art major from New Jersey who tags along one day to the rodeo with her sorority sisters, sees Luke ride, picks up his hat, and catches his eye. They come from different worlds, and are headed in different directions: She’s headed to an internship in New York, and he’s determined to go to the championships in Las Vegas. The film’s most charming scene has him arriving for their first date in full cowboy regalia, clutching a bouquet, raising eyebrows as he walks through campus asking for directions.
But wait — there’s a second couple this time. One night, Luke and Sophia come across a car wreck and find Ira (Alan Alda), an elderly man who’s had a heart attack while driving. Beside him is a box of old letters. At the hospital, as Ira recovers, Sophia reads to him from the letters, which date back many decades. They tell the story of Ira’s romance with Ruth, a feisty Jewish refugee from Austria during World War II. Young Ira is played by Jack Huston, grandson of John; young Ruth is played by Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie. One can sense the royal Hollywood blood coursing through these actors’ veins; they own the screen. Ira can’t seem to take his eyes off of Ruth, even as he trembles and freezes in her presence; she, for her part, is driven, outspoken, passionate, and leads him along marvelously. As written, the dynamic between them is dopey and one-dimensional, but these two remarkable actors give it life.
There’s a most Sparks-ian lesson to be learned here, of course, about romantic sacrifice. The story of Ruth and Ira and what they had to give up to find happiness (I won’t give it away here) predictably has some bearing on Luke and Sophia’s relationship. But as often happens in Sparks movies, the film’s most emotional moment has little to do with the romance and more to do with a seemingly extraneous character. In Dear John, the waterworks came when Channing Tatum held his dying, autistic father (Richard Jenkins) in his arms; in Nights in Rodanthe, they came when troubled surgeon Richard Gere learned more about the life of a woman who died on his operating table. Here, it has to do with Ruth’s attempts to instill a love of learning and art in a desperately poor hillbilly boy. No, really!
Look, it’s easy to laugh at this stuff — that’s part of the game, in fact. To buy into these movies, you have to buy into the silliness. But The Longest Ride, for all its ridiculousness, comes by its emotions honestly. Director George Tillman Jr., a journeyman who’s done everything from Soul Food to Notorious to Men of Honor, is not afraid to pull back on the swooning and just let the characters get to know each other. (At one point, Sophia and Luke discuss their different backgrounds; she talks about being the child of Polish immigrants, about bringing “stinky snacks to school,” and he talks about how everybody he grew up around was the same.) This is no minor feat. These types of movies often get their mileage by turning up the heat, and it’s rare to find one with this much assured patience. Eastwood and Robertson seem at ease around each other, too, which helps — when they’re not being blown off the screen by Huston and Chaplin, that is. The Longest Ride may not be a particularly good movie, but enough craft and care have clearly been brought to it that those looking for a Nicholas Sparks fix could do a lot worse.