‘The Longest Ride’: A melodramatic mess

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For Digital First Media

Nicholas Sparks has discovered the formula for becoming a commercially successful novelist. “The Longest Ride” is his seventeenth best-seller and the tenth to be adapted for the screen. The eleventh adaptation of one of his novels, “The Choice,” looms on the horizon.

Alas, despite their financial success, Sparks’ books and their adaptations are consistently melodramatic, overwrought, and replete with absurd denouements. “The Longest Ride” is no exception to this well-defined pattern.

Since “Message in a Bottle” first brought Sparks to the silver screen, adaptations of his novels have become progressively worse. The last two, “Safe Haven” and “The Best of Me” were particularly atrocious.

You know that a film is in trouble when the most compelling performance comes courtesy of a bovine creature. Such is the case with “The Longest Ride.” Rango the Bull is a demonic rodeo fixture, who outshines his human counterparts.

What makes this particularly noteworthy is the fact that the cast includes the progeny of two film icons. Scott Eastwood is the son of Clint Eastwood, while  Oona Chaplin is the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin.

Set in North Carolina, “The Longest Ride” revolves around an unlikely young couple and their relationship with an elderly man. Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) is a co-ed at Wake Forest University. She lives in an upscale sorority house, contending that it has the least expensive accommodations on campus. Sophia is a serious-minded student, who is attending college on a scholarship. She loves art, particularly the abstract variety. Sophia has lined up a dream internship at a prestigious art gallery in New York City, which specializes in modern art.

This photo provided by Twentieth Century Fox shows, Jack Huston, left, as Ira, and Oona Chaplin as Ruth, in a scene from the film, The Longest Ride," directed by George Tillman, Jr. The movie releases in the U.S. on April 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox, Michael Tackett)

This photo provided by Twentieth Century Fox shows, Jack Huston, left, as Ira, and Oona Chaplin as Ruth, in a scene from the film, The Longest Ride,” directed by George Tillman, Jr. The movie releases in the U.S. on April 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox, Michael Tackett)

Undaunted by the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door of Sophia’s room, her fun-loving sorority sister, Marcia (Melissa Benoist), intrudes. Marcia insists that Sophia join her and several other sorority sisters to attend a local rodeo. Sophia’s protests that rodeo isn’t her thing. Besides, she needs to study. However, Marcia points out that they are second semester seniors and on the cusp of graduating. As Marcia contends, there is no need for Sophia to remain obsessively focused on the academic grind.

Sophia begrudgingly relents, even donning a pair of cowgirl boots that Marcia provides for the occasion. While there, Sophia has a chance encounter with Luke Collins (Eastwood), a hunky bull-rider. After being bucked from a bull, he had sustained a severe head trauma.  Now, Luke is trying to stage a comeback. Luke rationalizes that he needs to continue bull-riding so that his mother (Lolita Davidovich) can hold onto the family ranch.

When Sophia meets Luke again at a local bar, the two have a pleasant interchange. There is an obvious natural rapport between them. However, they are from totally different backgrounds. Sophia grew up in Rutherford, New Jersey the daughter of Polish immigrants. By contrast, Luke hails from a fourth generation, native ranching family. There is a nexus of acute discord. Sophia adores modern art, while Luke loathes it. What chance do the two lovebirds have to overcome their differences and forge a harmonious relationship?

Returning from their first date, Luke notices a broken guard rail. He pulls over to investigate. On the other side of the guard rail, Luke discovers a crashed car. He valiantly rescues an unconscious man from the wreck, just before it bursts into flames.

The driver turns out to be Ira Levinson (Alan Alda), a cranky nonagenarian. While Ira is recovering in the hospital, Sophia and Luke frequently visit him. Ira recounts his decades-long love affair with his wife, Ruth. In flashbacks, we witness the courtship, circa 1940, between Ira (Jack Houston in flashbacks) and Ruth (Chaplin). Ruth and her Jewish family have fled Vienna to escape Nazi persecution. Somehow, they have landed in Greensboro, North Carolina, hardly a thriving center of Jewish life. Ruth harbors culturally refined sensibilities, including a passion for modern art. She disparages Ira as a “country pumpkin.”  The starkly different backgrounds of Ira and Ruth mirror those of Luke and Sophia. Will the younger couple draw any lessons from Ira’s anecdotal fodder? You don’t need to be Nostradamus to accurately predict where this is headed.

Sparks and Craig Bolotin have hammered the former’s novel into a screenplay. The film is helmed by George Tillman, Jr. (“Soul Food,” “Notorious”). His résumé makes him a curious selection for this genre of film.

Like the previous adaptations of Sparks novels, “The Longest Ride” consists of hackneyed narrative tropes. The denouement is horrendously far-fetched, even for a Sparks-derived vehicle. As a consequence, “The Longest Ride” is a melodramatic mess.

*1/2 PG-13 (for some sexuality, partial nudity, and some war and sports action) 139 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.





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