The Longest Ride is a tale about a square-jawed, bull-riding, North Carolina cowboy named Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood) and a relationship that changes him.
This emotional journey teaches him about sacrifice, priorities, and the heartbreaking decisions you must make when choosing between what you want and what you love. He has undeniable chemistry with his costar, chemistry that's as gripping as any you'll find in any romantic movie in recent years.
To be clear here, I'm not talking about Sophia (Britt Robertson), the girl he falls in love with.
I'm talking about a bull named Rango (Rango). Luke is willing to throw away his life for eight seconds on Rango's back, a testament to his dangerous love of bull riding and the source material of author and love genie Nicholas Sparks. For those who aren't regular Sparks readers, Luke's tale has been adapted for film from the book of the same name.
Though director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter Craig Bolotin are responsible for bringing this story to the screen, The Longest Ride is still very clearly a Nicholas Sparks fever dream. There are old people dying in their sleep, an old person being read to, rain-soaked hair, rain-soaked clothes, sex scenes that begin by removing wet clothes, two good-looking white people from almost "too different" walks of life, and sexy bodies of water.
Not unlike The Notebook, The Longest Ride is like a Russian nesting doll of love stories. Luke's love of bull riding is, of course, the biggest doll. Then we have Luke's love of Sophia. And wrapped in their story is a saga about a Jewish couple — Ruth (Oona Chaplin) and Ira (Jack Huston) Levinson — and their struggle to start a family, whom we learn about through the letters of an older Ira (Alan Alda).
It's an ambitious film that also wants to delve into ideas of immigration, the Holocaust, sterility, and motherhood, on top of the already insurmountable idea of bull-riding love. But the writing is shallow. And even with Alda's help, Eastwood's charm (and superhuman chest-to-waist ratio), and Chaplin's inherent likability, the movie crumbles under the weight of all of these swirling topics, collapsing into a forgettable pile of saccharine dust.
The totemic power of hats and letters
An important thing to know about Sparks, and about the 10 filmic adaptations of his novels, is that the man is drawn to hats and handwritten letters and loves them deeply. Hats, in Sparks's world, are symbols of love. Remember the newsboy cap Ryan Gosling's Noah wore in The Notebook? And remember how it helped signal to Rachel McAdams's Allie that Noah was her true love?
The same thing happens in The Longest Ride. Cowboy hats have a transformative power here, making men and women more attractive to each other. Sophia's sorority sisters wear them to a rodeo, showing the rodeo folk they're ready to party.
But Sophia doesn't have one because she is a reluctant spectator. It's a chance of wondrous fate that at the rodeo she meets Luke, and his hat is tossed off in her direction while he's riding. He lets her keep his.
The exchange of this cowboy hat is a symbol that they're meant to be together — this skeptical sorority girl from New Jersey and this cowboy from North Carolina. It's a bridge for their disparate worlds. This is the glorious universe of Nicholas Sparks.
The other integral element to any Nicholas Sparks story is the power of handwritten letters. There's a box full of them in this film. They belong to Ira Levinson, an old Jewish man who crashed his car into a tree. Sophia and Luke find him, get drenched with rain, and wiggle, Sophia especially, into his life. (I understand this sounds silly, but this all happens.)
She visits him in the hospital and, as part of a strange gambit, promises to read him letters he wrote his late wife so he can relive the sadness of their relationship, provided he promises to eat food. This does not seem a symbiotic relationship, because listening to a sorority girl complain about internships while reliving your PTSD just doesn't seem like something an old man might seek out. But Ira apparently has unconventional desires.
It's through these letters that Sophia figures out what love is, or what Sparks thinks love should be. Sparks is railing against the modern romance of Tinder, OkCupid, text messages, and social media stalking. Love, to Sparks and, by extension, Sophia, is a thing created by the fate of a cowboy hat and fostered by hundreds of letters.
Love is hard, even for good-looking, "different" people
Aside from the wonderful performance by Rango, there are no villains in The Longest Ride. It's a lot easier to root for a couple when there's a bad guy threatening to tear them apart. Sometimes it's a dad who doesn't want his daughter to date a ruffian. It might be a mom who doesn't want her son to ruin his college scholarship. Perhaps it's another suitor.
This film has none of those.
Instead, the villains of this film are Sophia and Luke's disparate backgrounds. Even though the two are devastatingly good-looking, white, relatively privileged, pleasant, altruistic, nice to old people, only children, and have lived in the same state for four years, the film strains to make clear how "different" they are.
"The reason I like you is because you're nothing like everyone else," Luke tells Sophia.
Never mind that Sophia is part of a sorority (with a really nice house) where she ostensibly shares something in common with her sisters, or the fact that most of the characters and extras in this film are also white.
Sophia is given qualities that are supposed to make her different — she loves art and is the daughter of Polish immigrants. These tweaks are superficial, though. Sophia's first-generation experience is a slapdash, throwaway line in a bar — it's just a prelude to a first kiss. And there's no sense that this immigrant experience shapes the way she sees the world. Her love for art is treated the same way — in that we never really see the "why" behind it.
"This is what I do," Luke tells Sophia near the end of the movie. It's supposed to explain his unflinching stupidity for wanting to ride a bull. But it's also a fitting reminder that there isn't any logic behind Luke and Sophia's characters. They just do.
Oona Chaplin and Scott Eastwood are undeniably charming
The film boasts a cast filled with scions of Hollywood royalty. Oona Chaplin is Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter and Eugene O'Neill's great-granddaughter. Scott Eastwood calls Clint dad. And Jack Huston has a family tree full of actors and directors.
The inevitable question surrounding the movie, then, is: Can these stars' offspring act?
Perhaps that's not an entirely fair question, given the weak material in The Longest Ride. But Chaplin rises above the rest as the indomitable Holocaust refugee Ruth. Ruth is optimistic, and spends most of the movie lowering her shoulder to the grindstone with the promise that things get better. Ruth is a one-note character, but Chaplin, blessed with bright, anime eyes, gives her a grace and poise that ultimately elevate her.
Eastwood, who looks like he's been genetically engineered by movie executives who wanted an even better-looking Chris Evans, has a tougher role as Luke. Like Ruth, the character of Luke isn't much to work with — he rides bulls and has trouble with love. But Eastwood is vulnerable in parts, and better than you think he'll be.
Alda, the grandfather of this group of pretty young Hollywood things, plays crusty old Ira. Like the other old characters you find in Nicholas Sparks movies, Ira is magical because he teaches humans how to love. He's a bit like a romantic Yoda, imparting love wisdom until his dying day. Alda does his best with what he's given, lending the film much-needed glimmers of comedy.
Unfortunately, Chaplin's brilliance, Alda's funny crustiness, and Eastwood's vulnerability aren't enough to keep this film afloat. It lumbers along, determined to show that love isn't effortless. Love is listening to someone prattle on about how their unpaid internship at an art gallery is more important than you. Love is going to a gallery with said person and hating every moment of it. Love is dragging an old guy out of a burning car, and then talking to him about his dead wife for the next month.
And that's why some people take up bull riding.