I think this might be the first movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel that I haven’t hated. Oh, sure, it’s set in an American South — specifically, North Carolina — where there are, impossibly, no black people (see also: Safe Haven), and where it only ever rains as an expression of manly sadness that cannot be articulated in any other way. It uses a motif similar to The Notebook’s, in which romantic handwritten documents of a relationship — in this case, love letters — allow for flashbacks to the 1940s, which Sparks seems to love with a gauzy sentimentality that would embarrass Norman Rockwell. (The author was born in 1965, so it’s not like he has memories of the era.) It’s way too long — over two hours, and feels it — and it ends with a completely ridiculous flourish of impossible fantasy that would be lovely if it happened in real life but never ever would.
That said… I did not hate The Longest Ride. For once, a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book appears to be populated by relatively realistic approximations of human beings, if ones on the extremely pretty end of the spectrum. I concede that this may be entirely down to screenwriter Craig Bolotin and director George Tillman Jr. (Notorious) — maybe they fished a passably engaging movie out of the muck of Sparks schmaltz? (I’m not going to read the book to find out.) My lack of hatred for this movie is also due to the presence of Britt Robertson and Scott Eastwood, who are charming separately and delightful together.
Mostly, probably, I suspect I didn’t hate this movie because the tales of the romances of Sophia (Robertson: Tomorrowland, Delivery Man) and Luke (Eastwood: Dawn Patrol, Fury), and, in flashbacks, of Ira (Jack Huston: American Hustle, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) and Ruth (Oona Chaplin: Game of Thrones, The Devil’s Double) are beset by realistic issues and conflicts between the couples that are dealt with by realistic compromise. (The bit of impossible fantasy at the end is what facilitates some of the compromise that Sophia and Luke are able to make for each other; I had been hoping for something a little tougher for them. But this is still a step up for Sparks.) Luke is a professional rodeo rider — you may snort; I did — who has to get back up on that bull after a terrible accident in the ring. Sophia is an art student about to graduate from university who says “I don’t see myself as a rodeo gal” but lets herself accept a friend’s advice to have a “fling with a cowboy.” (Luke is very fling-worthy. It’s nice to see a young man onscreen who isn’t a jerk or a jock or a dudebro, who appears to be a grownup. Seems pretty rare at the moment.)
The fling starts out only as a single date that doesn’t end well, however, when Sophia informs Luke that she’s heading to New York in two months to take her dream job in a gallery; cue the rain of manly sadness. As he is driving her home through the storm, they come across the crashed car of old Ira (Alan Alda: Tower Heist, Nothing But the Truth), and end up striking a friendship with him that revolves around Ira telling them about his relationship with his wife, Ruth, via the box of love letters they rescued from his car before it caught fire. Turns out Ruth wanted nothing so much as children, but a war injury prevents Ira from obliging her, as we see in flashbacks to the 1940s. (Yes, Alda, born 1936, is waaaay too young to be playing the older version of a man who fought in World War II.)
The most moving bits — perhaps because they are not like anything I can recall seeing in a romantic movie before, so they don’t feel so familiar — occur in Ira and Ruth’s story, as their parental desires are thwarted and they must struggle to find something else to keep them together. But Sophia and Luke’s relationship, too, is one of two people trying to find something that can keep them together even as their lives and ambitions don’t really mesh. Their attraction may be real — kudos to Tillman for avoiding the cheese there and instead managing sweet sexiness — but even they realize that that isn’t necessarily enough. I wish more movies about romance recognized that.