Based on the latest work of sappy romance by the one and only Nicholas Sparks, The Longest Ride is pretty well the definition of a trashy chick-flick. Of course by “chick-flick” I don’t mean to imply any woman of discerning taste would enjoy this, but rather that it’s a mind-numbingly frivolous story about attractive young people making out, making love, making problems, making up and finally making out again. While it tries to capitalize on the themes that made The Notebook (another Sparks adaption) such a definitive guilty pleasure, The Longest Ride lands with a thud, delivering a plot so unimaginative and bland even the less judicious audience it aims for are sure to be checking their watches. Whether it’s down to lackluster source material, or screenwriter Craig Bolotin’s inability to mine an interesting screenplay from it, the only thing more vanilla than The Longest Ride‘s plot is its uncomfortably Caucasian cast.
The Longest Ride‘s story takes us through the ups and manufactured downs of two generations of love stories. In the present we have professional bull-rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood) and arts student Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson), who manage to fall in love despite their inconsequentially different passions. Driving home from an evening of concentrated southern chivalry, Luke’s cowboy-sense alerts him to trouble and he stops his truck to investigate, finding a barely conscious Alan Alda amongst a burning car wreck. After rescuing him, Sophia forms a bond with the old man, Ira, as she reads to him a box of letters he previously wrote for his wife (sound familiar?), giving us a glimpse of their mid-century romance.
While the corny courtships and sappy melodrama will be enough to steer most people away, they’re deliberate inclusions and a forgivable expectation for the film’s targeted demographic. Where The Longest Ride really fails its audience is in its scattershot story telling and total lack of thematic direction. The film never feels like it’s moving toward anything, just going through the motions, introducing conflict (if you can call it that) here and there until it tries desperately in its final moments to tie the two stories together. On the bright side, the parallel plots do help conceal the shortfalls of both stories by keeping you from focusing to heavily on either one. Nothing of interest happens organically, and any story point that does stand out is so haphazardly introduced it becomes impossible to take serious.
Nothing flows in this movie; every development is introduced with a silent “and then” preceding it. Sophia and Luke fall in love. And then they rescue an old man. And then Luke will die if he keeps bull riding. And then he doesn’t. And then Luke hates people who like art. And then he doesn’t. Etcetera. Maybe it’s easy to pick apart the story, but in considering how heavily Sparks’ source material recalls his previous works (especially in the film’s marketing), it becomes hard to ignore the ugly dollar sign-shaped shadow hanging over the whole affair. The absolute absence of effort that went into this tale makes the motivation behind The Longest Ride undeniable, and the disinterest in rewarding fans near offensive. The whole story feels like it was written on the fly, throwing up disparate subplots and keeping all the plates spinning for long enough that it can be called a movie.
Of course, it wouldn’t be so bad if The Longest Ride could at least dish up some characters worth spending time with. Sophia and Luke are embarrassingly cliché gender stereotypes. They are an utter bore to behold, which is through no fault of Robertson or Eastwood, who did about as well as they could with what they had to work with. Beyond the novelty of being a modern-day-cowboy, Luke’s only defining characteristics are that he doesn’t really get silly things like art and that he just can’t bring himself to quit bull-riding. And just a quick side-note for those who’ve seen the trailers; don’t be fooled by how heavily they focused on the whole putting his life in danger with and what this does to Sophia, this only ends up amounting to a couple of scenes in the film. Kudos to the marketing team for trying to make it look exciting though. Sophia is even worse, a vacant vehicle for female viewers to supposedly substitute for themselves and be swept up in the romance by proxy. More frustrating, and borderline insulting, is how one unintentional romantic gesture is all it takes for her to forget all the apparently irreconcilable problems the two had and for her to go running into his arms. But then, their problems never really seemed like a big deal anyway.
The flashback story is thankfully a bit more interesting, if only because their issues are some that would actually matter to someone who matured beyond the age of 15. Jack Huston is pretty much just along for the ride as young Ira, but Oona Chaplin (who lends the cast its only sliver of diversity) manages to provide a bit of charm to the film with her adorably wide-eyed Austrian refuge Ruth. Though their falling in love is at times sickly sweet, there is at least some sense of romance and heart to their getting to know each other. Unfortunately the quality of their story goes south when an injury in the war leaves Ira unable to father children, stopping Ruth from having the big family she always wanted. It was also more than a little distracting imagining how getting shot would leave him infertile, leading to an audible sigh of relief from the men in my audience when it was revealed infection was the cause and not a missing appendage. From here their story warps into a creepy subplot about Ruth bringing an unpopular infant home from the school she works at and, eventually, a climax that fails miserably to bring all the different pieces home.
It’s not so much that it doesn’t all come together, but that it’s forced with such a laughable last-minute contrivance that doesn’t just solve all the characters problems, but basically elevated them to some of the most fortunate people in human history. Worse than just destroying the credibility of the world The Longest Ride had so far built, it traded what could have been an authentically emotional climax for yet another example of infantile storytelling; a neat little bow to end a story no one seemed to care about telling. And then it ended. And then I felt cheated. And then it got a score of…
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10