Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: "The Longest Ride"

Movies based on Nicholas Sparks books tend to be short on brainpower but long on emotional tug. "The Longest Yard" is the best one since "The Notebook," making up most of the yardage in smarts without sacrificing too much in the way of passion.

Like all Sparks flicks, it centers around a volatile relationship between two young people from different worlds. It also borrows the familiar technique of giving us a parallel story of another love from another time, with connections between the two growing stronger as the film goes on.

It stars Britt Robertson and Scott Eastwood as one couple in the current time, while Oona Chaplin and Jack Huston are the antique pair.

If some of those names sound familiar, that's because they are. Chaplin is the granddaughter of the great Charlie Chaplin, and Eastwood is the son of Clint Eastwood. (I thought Huston might be one of the Hollywood Hustons, John/Danny/Angelica, but no, he's a Brit.)

Overall it's a nice cast, with each couple sharing warm chemistry between them. It also features Alan Alda in the old man role, and he's quite effective in an understated way.

The story is this: Sophia (Robertson), smart art student from Wake Forest meets Carolina bull rider Luke (Eastwood). They fall hard for each other, but she's soon headed to New York to work at a gallery, while he's chasing the elusive championship after some very hard knocks. On the way home from a magical first date, they rescue Ira (Alda), an old man whose car has run off the road, along with a box of old letters.

While visiting Ira in the hospital, Sophia reads the letters to him, which chronicle the tale of his lifelong love, Ruth (Chaplin). Part of the close-knit Jewish community in Greensboro in the 1940s, they fell in love themselves and started a life together, but not without certain challenges and tragedies along the way. Huston takes over the role of Ira as a youngster.

"Love requires sacrifice -- always," says elder Ira, in the sort of movie where characters just blurt out its main theme.

In the case of Luke and Sophia, that means he must give up the ranch and cracking his skulls falling off bulls, and she has to shelve her dreams of curating great art, or both.

Robertson is a charismatic and likeable star. Her face looks like a cross between Lena Headey ("Game of Thrones") and Linda Hamilton, and she has the spunk of a young Reese Witherspoon about her. Eastwood is like a prettier version of his dad, and much of the early going involves both cowgirls and college girls growing woozy at the sight of him. His acting's a bit stiff in the talkie scenes, but again, just like pop.

The Chaplin/Huston pairing is even better, enhanced by spectacular period costumes, cars and sets. Director George Tillman Jr. ("Men of Honor") shows off Sparks' North Carolina backyard in all its sun-dappled gorgeousness. He even manages to capture the frenetic, bestial grace of bull riding -- though, like the quarter mile races in "The Fast and the Furious," those 8-second rides somehow get stretched out to a minute of screen time.

"The Longest Ride" is a big cinematic piece of caramel-covered melted cheese, unapologetically sweet and sappy. But it will cause warm swells in the heart and a tear or two to be shed.

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