Though The Longest Ride, adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, features competitive bull riding, the titular “longest ride” turns out not to be the eight seconds that a bull rider must remain unbucked. Shocker, I know. Resident bull rider Luke’s (Scott Eastwood) mother (Lolita Davidovich) uses math to demonstrate this point: eight seconds is a finite amount of time, she notes, and therefore is only “the longest” relative to periods of time less than eight seconds. Luke doesn’t hear her, because he is a man who believes in doing manly things like bull riding and not unmanly things like grade school arithmetic. Luke is also a self-described “old school” chivalrous cowboy, despite the fact that, as is often the case in movies about old school chivalrous cowboys, his awesome mother would clearly roll her eyes, all “I can buy my own drink, thanks.” Inevitably, Luke only gets the calculus of love when fellow man and aging love expert Ira (Alan Alda, but also Jack Huston in flashbacks) flatly explains it: the longest ride is the love between a man and a woman.
Because this is Sparks, this longest ride is also A Universal Heteronormative Love Story. Men and women in very different decades from very different backgrounds act the same ways and say the same theme-appropriate lines to one another and invest in the same immutable categories of gender because…well, welcome to a Nicholas Sparks story, where no potentially subtle bit of dialogue isn’t highlighted and underlined and circled and cross-referenced countless times in the script until it becomes unavoidably offensive. You can almost imagine questions like “Could this be more sexist?” scrawled all over the margins of Sparks’s notebook—which is a copy of The Notebook, of course.
Consequently, Sophia (Britt Robertson) is a sorority sister who promptly abandons her sorority sisters to hang out almost exclusively with Luke and Ira, because a troubled boyfriend with a death wish and a dying geriatric are exactly what a twenty-something girl is willing to put her friends and her career aspirations on hold for. Sophia and Luke save Ira from a car crash along with a picnic basket filled with love letters Ira wrote to his wife Ruth (Oona Chaplin). They’re all addressed and stamped, even though for most of the movie Ruth and Ira seem to either live together or live in the same neighborhood.
The movie goes out of its way to make the letters seem even more ludicrous than that. The first time she looks at them, Sophia grabs six or seven from the middle of the stack, flips through them, and arbitrarily opens one at random. Fortunately, the calculus of love works, and her selection just happens to be Ira’s very first letter. Ira shares this talent with Sophia: each randomly picked letter just happens to be the next in the series. At one point, Sophia reads a date, and Ira sighs in pleasure: “That was a good day.” Except then Sophia reads the letter and it turns out to cover multiple days—maybe even months—and…how was it dated with the date of the first day it covered? Was Ira writing these letters to Ruth as he and Ruth were doing the things the letters chronicle them doing? Is The Longest Ride Spark’s subtle jab at selfie and Vine culture? The movie itself seems to acknowledge how foolish this all is: It drops the pretense of the letters pretty quickly, and by the mid-point of this two-hour snoozefest Ira’s mastery of the calculus of love is so powerful that he can initiate a flashback just by narrowing his eyes or lowering his voice.
When she’s not reading Ira’s love letters, Sophia is going on old school chivalrous cowboy picnic dates with Luke. She swoons about how special his takeout BBQ and lakeside picnic table are despite the fact that this is the exact same date cowboys take cosmopolitan women on in every movie about cowboys dating cosmopolitan women. Still, such picnics must be powerful; suddenly, Sophia’s lifelong dream of going to Manhattan to pursue a career in art—because she loves “art,” and also “everything about it”—is compromised by her desire for Luke’s “shoulders.”
Everything about this movie is so serendipitous it must be some kind of calculus. Luke and Sophia meet when she and her sorority sisters arrive at his bull riding competition and, despite the overcrowded stands, are lucky enough to find front row seats just as Luke, a hometown hero who hasn’t ridden a bull for a whole year since he was gored and comafied by Rango the bull, is entering the chute. When Luke inevitably has to ride Rango again—not really a spoiler, since Rango gets more screen time than Alan Alda—the competition announcer notes that Rango has bucked 99 consecutive riders. Because, you know, Luke surviving eight seconds on a bull that almost killed him simply isn’t enough tension. The movie needs you to know that if Luke doesn’t succeed, the dastardly Rango will have a nice round number of 100 bucks on his resumé. Unsurprisingly, Rango is the best character in this film, and the only one worth rooting for.
The actors do try—and even manage—to make some of this work, but Craig Bolotin’s script just won’t let things be. An illustrative example: Early on, Alda gives a funny line reading, joking that his nurse has “the coldest hands I’ve ever felt.” But then he’s forced to keep making this same “joke” over and over again, and you can see him giving up with each successive rendering. He tells Sophia the nurse must stick her hands in ice water; he asks the nurse if she sticks her hands in ice water. Is Bolotin’s copy of A Scriptwriter’s Guide to Curmudgeonly-But-Secretly-Loveable Old Men missing all of its pages but one? In the flashback scenes, Huston and Chaplin are far too good for this film, imbuing the story of Ira and Ruth with emotionally affecting grace notes that seem almost out of place. Robertson and Eastwood are far less affecting, though, to be fair, Ira and Ruth do have a real problem: she’s a Jewish refugee from Austria who wants to have a large family in the wake of the Holocaust; he gets a wound in the war that renders him sterile. Robertson and Eastwood are forced to struggle with a decidedly less interesting problem: Sophia likes art and not bull riding and Luke likes bull riding and not art.
The movie’s solution to how these two fundamentally different people who clearly aren’t meant for one another will be able to be together is the icing on the serendipitous cake, while simultaneously defying any possible logic. It fails in terms of plot because it’s presented as some kind of cleverly calculated cosmic push by Ira to bring Luke and Sophia together even though the variables involved make zero sense. It fails in terms of character because it revolves around Luke taking Ira’s advice, even though they’ve barely spoken throughout the film. It fails in terms of catharsis because Luke and Sophia can only be together because Ira is able to create the exact conditions to stop these two very different twenty-somethings from just moving on. But it fails most obviously because despite all the bloviating about love and sacrifice in The Longest Ride, Luke and Sophia’s individual emotional arcs happen separately from one another. Sophia the Woman reads love letters and, inspired by them, loosens up, defocusing from her career objectives (even though focus is a problem the film establishes for her in only the most cursory fashion); Luke the Man successfully conquers his sports demons, allowing him to accept his own mortality (but he never actually has to apologize for being a jerk about Sophia’s artistic ambitions).
In other words, while the story wants to pretend it’s about two fully realized individuals who battle their obstacles and fight for their love, it isn’t. I guess that is Ira and Ruth’s story, but Sophia and Luke are ultimately just two individuals who are granted a hilariously large amount of rope by a third party that creates a situation where maybe they can, freed from suspicions about each other’s career goals, try dating for reals. So: young love, whatever. But it sure would have been nice if the film hadn’t excised the sorority sisters from its second half so at least one of them could have pointed out to Sophia that there are cowboys who like art and art-lovers with cowboy physiques and a million other potential partners who wouldn’t have thrown up their hands in despair that she was going to Manhattan for only three months.
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Writer: Craig Bolotin; Nicholas Sparks (novel)
Starring: Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood, Alan Alda, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin
Release Date: April 10, 2015
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.