Turning standard-issue romances into fairy-tale love stories has won the prolific Nicholas Sparks 12 New York Times bestsellers, 10 film adaptations and millions of fans grateful by the crate-full. His latest, “The Longest Ride,” turns sagas about two distant couples into a storybook combination of World War II bewitchment and modern cowboy courtship. Directed by George Tillman Jr. (who last helmed the Michael Starrbury-scripted treasure “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete”), this is spoon-fed entertainment, but it tastes pretty good.
Presented in a manner that is charming, relaxed, intimate and usually clear-eyed, it highlights Luke, a North Carolina rodeo champ, and Sophia, a trendsetting, abstract-art-loving college senior, recent acquaintances falling in love. There are supporting roles for their elderly kindred spirits Ira and Ruth, whose long, loving marriage began in the 1940s. Sophia visits Ira daily at the hospital after Luke rescues him from a traffic accident, charmed by his love stories about dear, now-deceased Ruth.
The couples’ parallel sagas share similar themes of hope created and deferred, and some jokes that work in either era, like Viennese sophisticate Ruth fondly calling her small-town beau “a country pumpkin.” When Ira explains that Americans say “bumpkin,” she says either term works fine.
The film works without top stars; the cast is a remarkable collection of performers’ descendants tapping lifetimes of movieland DNA. Clint Eastwood’s son Scott plays Luke. Jack Huston, grandson of John, is Ira in his early years. Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie, appears as his beloved Ruth. Even Alan Alda, playing present-day Ira, is the son of a famed actor/director, Robert Alda. Combine their families’ show business histories and you have a span of time reaching back approximately to Columbus. That is an incredible amount of Hollywood Boulevard street cred. Only young Britt Robertson, playing Luke’s new love Sophia, is an interloper, and she acts well nonetheless.
As usual in Nicholas Sparks features, the characters are attractive and sympathetic. Eastwood’s true-blue Luke is instantly appealing both as hot eye candy and a warm personality. While he’s never less than gentlemanly, he worries Sophia by refusing to end his career after troubling injuries. Ruth is distressed by Ira’s wounds, as well. Winning the Purple Heart in Europe interrupts their family plans, sending them to a life of daily love letters, shared passion for fine art, and hospitality to the local children, rather than blood relatives of their own.
Here and there the tone turns from light amusement to tragedy, with ample time out for bone-crunching bull riding, car wrecks and war scenes. Sparks, whose movies over the past decade have made him the Santa Claus of date night, provides plenty of treats for men and women alike. Each couple’s relationship woes trigger cliffhangers, and are cured with a couple of tearful pity parties and a miraculous coincidence or two. Spoiler alert — there are happy endings.
“The Longest Ride” runs long on the naïve and escapist, light on irony, cynicism, and passion beyond PG-13. Little that happens here will surprise Sparks loyalists, and less will disappoint them.