My three favorite things in one movie: Nicholas Sparks, bull riding, and modern art masterpieces.
George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of Sparks’s 2013 bestseller, “The Longest Ride,” attempts — like many genre films — to reconcile opposites. It tries to bridge the gap between pop culture and cultural elitism, between high art and the common commodity that everyone else buys tickets to see. A worthy goal, but it results in a movie that has none of the virtues of either.
Perhaps this is because one of the cinematic styles Tillman relies on is that of a Budweiser commercial. He depicts the world of bull riding with the backlit, sometimes slo-mo slickness used to sell beer. He includes the same babes in cowboy boots and hats and short shorts, and more importantly, a hunky hero — Luke, played by Scott Eastwood, son of Clint. We won’t know whether this generation of Eastwood can act the part of a leading man or not until he appears in a movie that requires it.
Meanwhile, Britt Robertson does flex a few acting muscles as Sophia, a Wake Forest art history major who is dragged from her books by her sorority mates to go to see the rodeo. There she cute-meets Luke when the latter is thrown from a bull and his hat lands at her feet. After some courtin’ (“I’m old school,” Luke says ominously) the two end up in a lovemaking montage that intercuts bull-riding with their mistily shot grapplings. It might be worth noting that a contestant has to remain on a bull for at least eight seconds in order to score.
Bliss montage over, it’s time to face facts. Can they really be happy if they come from two such different worlds? When Luke compares the art Sophia loves to the stuff they shovel at the arena? When she realizes that Luke persists in his sport even though he has a brain injury from a past competition, and a sharp blow can be fatal?
One of the advantages of Sparks (“The Notebook,” etc.) on the screen is that it means escaping his prose. That is, until the letters show up, introducing another troubled romance from the past. Here, they are from Ira (Alan Alda; with him reading them in voice-over you can almost pretend it’s an episode from “Scientific American Frontiers”) to his beloved Ruth (Oona Chaplin). As their tale unfolds, the parallels with Luke and Sophia become uncanny. The two women love modern art; the two men think it’s a scam. Both men have crippling injuries, though for Ira it was in a different place and a souvenir of the war (shades of “The Sun Also Rises”).
Did Ira and Ruth resolve their differences and manage a marriage between elite and plebeian culture? Let’s just say that the longest ride is life, and if you have love, it can be a portrait of happiness.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.