Long after the romantic tragedy plot particulars of “The Longest Ride” have receded into the well of my hazy memories of SO many Nicholas Sparks adaptations, I will fondly recall one particular scene, for it has the distinction of being one of the least thrilling and most disgusting climactic sports sequences I have ever seen.
Here’s the deal. Scott Eastwood, bearing a strong resemblance to his famous dad Clint circa the “Rawhide” days, plays Luke Collins, a dreamy, chisel-chinned, old-fashioned, aw-shucks-ma’am professional bull rider who has a death wish to conquer the notorious “Rango,” described as a monstrous beast who has thrown 99 consecutive riders, including Luke, who almost died on that fateful day. (I’m not sure that makes Rango a monster. He’s just a bull, doing what bulls are supposed to do.)
Anyway. Luke draws Rango in the Professional Bull Riding championship, and the gate opens, and Rango bucks and kicks and snorts and does everything in his power to throw Luke — and director George Tillman opts for an ultra-slow motion technique.
You will never see so many slow-mo arcs of flying bull snot, from so many angles, in your life.
As for “The Longest Ride,” it’s a metaphor for lifelong romance and I’ll refrain from going for the easy jab and saying it also applies to the 139-minute running time for this latest adaptation of a novel from Sparks, whose books have given birth to “Dear John, the Notebook about The Lucky One gives us Safe Haven to read the Message in a Bottle about The Last Song.”
I told you these Sparks movies tend to get jumbled into one big cliché-riddled story.
This time around, we get two romances: One set in modern times, one dating back to the 1940s, and nearly every time we flashback to the old-timey romance, we’re hammered over the head with the parallels between the two.
The fetching Britt Robertson gives a winning performance as Sophia, a senior art student at Wake Forest who has landed a prestigious internship with a New York gallery. The last thing Sophia’s looking for is romance, but her sorority sisters drag her to a local bull riding competition — and one look at the hunky Luke, and Sofia’s a goner.
To say Luke and Sophia ave a memorable first date is to low-key things, which almost never happens in a Nicholas Sparks movie. On their way home from the perfect evening, they spot a car that has crashed through a guard rail. Using his apparent Spidey-strength, Luke rips the car door open and rescues the elderly Ira (Alan Alda), who can only mumble, “The box, the box.” Sofia retrieves the box — which is filled with love letters from Ira to his beloved late wife, Ruth.
So Alan Alda, er, Ira, is our bridge to the past. Sophia visits Ira on a regular basis and reads Ira’s old love letters to him, which is our cue to return to the 1940s, when young Ira (Jack Huston, who was so great as the disfigured gunman in “Boardwalk Empire”) falls for the vivacious Ruth (Oona Chaplin).
Now that’s some interesting casting. In a plot thread set in the 1940s, we have Jack Huston — grandson of John Huston, nephew of Angelica Huston — co-starring with Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, great-granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill. They’re both wonderful, though saddled with a shamelessly corny storyline involving Ira’s war injury, their inability to have children, and the smudge-faced poor kid they try to adopt. (And even though Ira and Ruth are a Jewish couple living in North Carolina in the middle of the 20th century, they never encounter even a whiff of anti-Semitism.)
Sophia and Luke have the typical Sparksian romance, which involves overhead shots of pickup trucks on winding North Carolina roads, lots of lingering glances, semi-steamy lovemaking — and lots of tears because they’re from different worlds, and how will they ever make it work?
Meanwhile, wise old Ira wistfully remembers all those wonderful years with Ruth, who conveniently enough was a lover of bold and daring art back in the day just like Sophia is today. Come on, Sophia, wake up and smell the life lessons! Ira’s trying to make a point, and judging by the oxygen tank and the fact he’s about 95 years old given the story’s timeline, he doesn’t have all day.
Alda does what he can with a heavily clichéd role. Young Eastwood and Ms. Robertson are likable actors. Huston and Chaplin will continue to do fine work in better vehicles.
Soon after we get that unforgettable Bull Snot scene, “The Longest Ride” treats us to a twist that’s so ridiculous I think we’re almost supposed to laugh. It’s not quite on the “Are you KIDDING ME!?” level of awfulness as the big reveal in “Safe Haven,” but it’s close. It’s close.