The Longest Ride

I like to imagine Nicholas Sparks sitting at his laptop, getting bored with writing and deciding to spice up his latest novel by killing off his main characters. There’s no point in pretending to be a fan, so allow me to be blunt: the man kills off more characters with sadistic glee than Stephen King on his darkest day. The set-up of Sparks’ novels all have a familiar approach: there’s attractive but romantically unsatisfied protagonists, letters that are either treasured or unopened, a rich/poor separation of the main lovers, a disease that is introduced by a character coughing, and the notion that love will transcend death, made all the more literal when someone/everyone dies. I tried reading one of his novels in college, in the same way I try to avoid chocolate around the holidays but never go through with it.

Every year, another Sparks movie adaptation haunts the local cinema, each one recycling the banal sameness of the one before it. If I had to sit through one again, it might be the horrible “Safe Haven,” which has one the most unintentionally hilarious final reveals I’ve ever seen. Otherwise, movies based on his novels tend to be forgettable or insufferable. The highest praise I could give his latest book-turned-movie, “The Longest Ride,” is that it’s the best Sparks movie yet, but I don’t mean that as a glowing recommendation.

Scott Eastwood plays as a rodeo star who is instantly smitten with a girl in the stands (played by Britt Robertson). When the two become acquainted with an elderly car crash survivor (Alan Alda), they learn of a love story that took place decades earlier but has an unexpected connection to their own. Although the flashback scenes, involving the romance between a WWII survivor (Jack Huston) and his school teacher bride (Oona Chaplin) don’t seem interconnected, the two storylines intersect in a meaningful way.

There’s not a lot to Eastwood or Robertson’s characters but I liked them both a great deal. Robertson, the star of this summer’s big “Tomorrowland,” is enormously appealing and Eastwood (yes, you know who his father is) has real-deal screen presence. The charm and charisma they bring to their roles is stronger than what the screenplay provides them. Everyone on hand appears to work hard to transcend the material. There’s also Lolita Davidovich, bringing spice to her role as Eastwood’s mother, and Alda, who has seen better days than playing a twinkly-eyed geriatric who hoards piles of old letters.

The twist at the end is a nice surprise, though it’s the only unexpected moment in the entire story. The use of slo-mo during the climactic bull riding scene is stunning; seeing the beast in motion, body twisting at tremendous speeds, with strings of saliva sloshing around, creates an arresting image of the danger involved. The blatant visual cues, that bull riding is as intoxicating as sex, is a touch that could have come across as ridiculous but instead, is sort of daring and kind of sexy. So are the leads, whether unleashing their growing attraction in a photo booth or sharing a PG-13 shower (in which it appears CGI was used to blur out the nudity. Wimps!).

In addition to Eastwood, there’s also third generations of the Huston and Chaplin family, who give performances that grew on me. A late-in-the-movie subplot, involving a little boy who becomes a family figure, is the strongest element in the extensive flashback portion.

This “Ride” is indeed very long , takes too much time to grab hold and, in story and characterizations, never digs very deep. Yet, faint praise it may be, this is preferable to every other Sparks Cinematic Assault. For a change, he doesn’t kill off all his characters. He must have been having a good day when he wrote it.