Considering how many films are made out of Nicholas Sparks’ novels — 10 in the last 16 years — I was bound to like one of them. After being subjected to the worst of the bunch last October (The Best of Me), it could have some bearing on why I liked The Longest Ride so much. This is a definite bright spot among the drivel we’re used to from Sparks.
While it still holds a lot of his trademarks, this is a pretty good cast, and director George Tillman, Jr. seemed an oddball choice (see Soul Food, Men of Honor, Notorious, and Faster). Even his 2013 Sundance film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete doesn’t make him seem right for the job. But alas, Tillman has managed to pull a rabbit out of his hat and make the best Sparks adaptation since The Notebook.
In The Longest Ride, we meet bull rider Luke Collins (Scott “Son of Clint” Eastwood) who gets seriously injured as the film jumps to one year later. Now we meet college student Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson), who loves studying so much she tries to skip out on a bull riding event, but gets dragged along by her BFF Marcia (Melissa Benoist) anyway. Here, she meet cutes the dashing Luke who gives her his hat after it flies into the stands. Later that night, Luke and Sophia meet again outside a bar.
The two eventually plan a date that goes as splendidly as Nicholas-Sparks-possible, until, on the ride home, they encounter Ira (Alan Alda) in his wrecked car on the side of the road. They rescue Ira and his basket of love letters and Sophia forms a bond with Ira as he recounts his days before/during WWII (played by John Huston) with the love of his wife, the spunky art-obsessed Ruth (Oona “Granddaughter of Charlie” Chaplin). Eventually, they all learn the ups and downs of relationships as they battle either the avoidance of resentment or the casualty of it.
If any films feel cookie-cutter and and manufactured, it’s Sparks’. Full of pretty people doing boneheaded things, with a big twist that typically makes zero sense. The Longest Ride at least tries to buck some of the trends. The big twist here feels organic, and the book probably had a major overhaul in the screenwriting process, with Craig Bolotin giving us characters that are easy to like. I’ve been told the book is pretty tough to get through. The flashbacks scenes are the most effective, making you wish that this was their movie instead. Even if it feels like a live-action version of the tear-inducing montage from Up.
Robertson and Eastwood are a super cute couple and work well together, helping make their steamy moments extra steamy. Even if once in awhile they’re stuck in maudlin situations and Eastwood is forced to emote. He’s way better as the country boy, but still far from terrible. Alda could have been wasted, but his scenes with Robertson help give the present day story some added oomph.
Tillman may seem like a left-field directing choice, but he keeps the movie well-paced, making sure we’re never bored. He also lends some flair to the bull riding scenes, dragging out those eight seconds to full effect. The Longest Ride had everything going against it, but wound up being one of the sweeter movies of the year so far.