Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Longest Ride

THE LONGEST RIDE (George Tillman Jr., 2015)

Although Nicholas Sparks film adaptations don’t cross over with one another like superhero movies, they might as well constitute their own cinematic universe populated with men and women resisting and desiring the love that comes into their lives. The male protagonists tend to have prototypically masculine professions, like soldier or oil rigger, while displaying acute emotional sensitivity. Female leads are often strong and independent yet in need of the right relationship to feel whole. Daily life is slower and quieter in these soft focus, sun-dappled romances, but the capricious forces at work usually demand a third act death. Happy endings are tempered with the bittersweet knowledge of the sacrifice necessary to achieve them. THE LONGEST RIDE sticks to the formula but eases up on the melodrama that has smothered some Sparks adaptations.

Wake Forest art major Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) is two months from graduation and an internship with a Manhattan gallery when she meets professional bull rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood). Sophia doesn’t need the distraction of dating someone in North Carolina when she’ll soon be moving, so she ignores his calls and texts for awhile before agreeing to a date. They spend a pleasant night together, but on the way home Luke spots where a car is crashed through a guard rail. He pulls the dazed old man from the burning vehicle. Sophia retrieves the box on the front seat that the driver mumbles about wanting to save. After taking him to the hospital, Sophia elects to stay until the injured man, Ira Levinson (Alan Alda), is stabilized.

While waiting she opens the box to find many old letters that he wrote to his beloved. She reads the first one, composed in 1940, and is deeply moved by the story of a young Ira (Jack Huston) pining for Ruth (Oona Chaplin), whose Jewish family has relocated from Vienna to North Carolina to escape the war in Europe. Sophia offers to read the letters to Ira. No longer able to read them himself, he gladly accepts. Sophia is visiting with him when Luke drops by the hospital to return an old photo of Ira and Ruth that was left behind in his truck. Sophia is glad to see Luke again, and they decide to discover where a relationship might take them in the time she still has in the south. While they fall into an easygoing rhythm, Sophia’s intention to start her career up north and well-founded concerns over his well-being riding bulls threaten to break them apart.

Needing to attend to parallel love stories separated by seventy-some years, THE LONGEST RIDE is unable to develop both equally. Ira and Ruth’s World War II-era courtship and marriage produce the richer storyline, in part because their flashbacks observe a lifetime of experiences that essentially dramatize UP’s tear-jerking Carl and Ellie montage. Trying to draw comparisons between Ira and Ruth’s joys and disappointments with the thrills and challenges Sophia and Luke go through simply isn’t fair to the younger generation. Despite the obstacles to their long-term happiness, Sophia and Luke’s romantic conflict is also too tidily resolved via a plot point that is very much like one in the last Sparks adaptation, THE BEST OF ME.

When used as narration Ira’s letters sound like they were written to someone who has forgotten everything he’s telling her. The seemingly present-set film perceives World War II as being in the more recent past than it is because otherwise Alda’s Ira should likely be in his mid-90s. These are screenwriting nitpicks, though, for a romance that mostly works regardless of such shortcomings. THE LONGEST RIDE allows characters to spend time getting to know one another and build the natural progression of their relationships. The film prefers to savor Sophia and Luke bonding by sharing tales of their vastly different childhoods and Ira and Ruth finding gladness in their fleeting time caring for a boy as their own child than fixating on the lightning bolt of mutual attraction.

Credit goes to director George Tillman Jr. and the cast for investing lightweight characters with humanity without getting soppy. Robertson and Eastwood exhibit the laidback chemistry of people drawn to each other but not obsessed with whether they may match their preconceived ideas of The One. Huston and Chaplin are attuned to the give and take in a couple for whom interests and personalities differ. As Ira recalls the great love of his life, Alda exudes warmth with Robertson, and she meets with compassion free of pity. Certainly THE LONGEST RIDE is a kind of fantasy, but it indulges the longing for a love story with the complexities of life while avoiding piling on needless twists to make it appear more urgent.

Grade: B-

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