Sparks fly in dual love story ‘The Longest Ride’

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Nicholas Sparks writes only one kind of story: A beautiful young woman meets a handsome young man one fine summer in North Carolina. She pushes him away, he persists, they fall in love. They kiss in the rain, in the ocean or even in a pond, if they’re in a pinch. Then they fight, and love is lost. A second tragedy strikes, and they are back together, this time forever. Cue sentimental music, zoom in on the final kiss and cut to a widening shot of North Carolina’s scenic beauty. Of course you’re not crying, you just have allergies.

They’re all the same, these Sparksian dramas, but Sparks’ latest, “The Longest Ride,” gives viewers more bang for their buck: two love stories for the price of one. The first centers on art history student Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson), who, in her last semester at Wake Forest University, begrudging attends a rodeo with her sorority sisters. She meets a ruggedly handsome bull rider, Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood), who is staging a comeback despite being nearly killed a year earlier by his bovine Moby Dick, Rango (himself).

On the drive home from their eye-roll-inducing first date, the young couple’s path crosses with that of of Ira Levinson (Alan Alda), an elderly man whom Luke bravely pulls out of a car fire. Sophia saves a box of letters from the wreck, letters thats Ira wrote to his late wife chronicling their lives together. Although a bit clumsy and forced, the letters serve as convenient segues to the film’s flashback scenes.

These correspondences take the film back to 1940, when a youthful Ira (Jack Huston) falls instantly for an elegant Jewish woman, Ruth (Oona Chaplin), who has come to North Carolina to escape persecution in her homeland of Vienna. When Ira goes abroad to fight the same forces that brought Ruth to him, he receives an injury that threatens his future with her. Despite this hurdle, amid heartbreak and sacrifice, they find happiness together collecting art and visiting Black Mountain College — on which Sophia is coincidentally writing her senior thesis.

If Sparks always wrote characters like Ruth and Ira — and worked with more actors like Huston and Chaplin — he might not be the nightmare of every boyfriend in the country. Their love story moves out of the cliche and deals with more adult issues, such as life-changing physical limitations and unsatisfying compromise.

Unfortunately, director George Tillman Jr. interrupts these compelling sequences all too often to return to sex scenes and slow-motion bull riding in the other, less interesting plotline. The resulting amalgam is a disservice to both stories, which could be good if they were left more time to develop. Instead, the film speeds through two concurrent highlight reels that, while emotionally impactful, undermine the narrative integrity of the film.

But of course, anyone who has seen any of the other films based on Sparks’ novels already knows these critiques. His stories are not meant to be realistic. If that were the case, most of the characters in “The Longest Ride” would be dead within the first hour and the women would have ended up with men who could better match them intellectually. The lesson in the film, as explained by elderly Ira, is that “love requires sacrifice,” but the forfeits made by Sophia and Ruth are so big that they end up feeling far-fetched.

Although rife with the melodramatic tropes expected in any Sparks film, “The Longest Ride” does succeed in offering slightly more than other  films such as “The Last Song” and “The Notebook”: Two of the main characters are Jewish, the women are likeable, traditional masculinity is not the hallmark of a man’s worth, and the humor comes from frantic and unnecessary close-ups on crazy bull eyes instead of from laughably bad dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, “The Longest Ride” features strong enough performances by its four leads to make up for the film’s weaker points and to pack it with an emotional punch.

“The Longest Ride” is playing at the United Artists Theatre in Berkeley.