Saturday, May 28, 2016

Could You Survive "The Longest Ride"?

"I'm an old cow hand/from the Rio Grande/and my legs are bowed/and my cheeks are tan...": Bronco buster Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood, son of you-know-who) prepares to face Rango the Bucking Bull in Nicholas Sparks' latest romantic cow-pie "The Longest Ride".

Greetings, movie lovers.

In the world according to Nicholas Sparks, opposites attract, messages are found in bottles, couples kiss in the rain, swim in their underwear and lovable old people counsel that "love requires sacrifice, always" right before they kick the bucket.

Considering how successful Mr. Sparks is and how Hollywood never tires of film adaptations of his work, far be it from me, a humble, obscure film historian who specializes in rotten movies, to suggest Nicholas bore a hole in himself and let the sap run out before he attempts another masterpiece, but I will anyway.

 Nick, sweetie: bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out, OK?

Actress Britt Robertson (as college girl Sophia) cringes at some of the lines she must utter in her latest film role.

This advice might have saved 2015's "The Longest Ride", Nicholas' most recent best selling novel turned feature film. After all, this is a movie where an Art History major must choose between an un-paid internship in NYC or retaining the love of a professional bull rider with a plate in his head.

Of course, considering that the cow poke in question ( Luke Collins-- no hero in a Nicholas Sparks movie is ever named Irving Hooper or Homer Stackmouse) is played by Scott Eastwood, son of "Dirty Harry" himself, and the owner of killer cheekbones and washboard abs, this is a conflict that would not bedevil most gals with a pulse. They would simply find a way to work it out, either by telecommuting or sharing the flying between cities or perhaps finding a job with an equally prestigious art gallery somewhere closer to home. Luke could make compromises, too.

Nevertheless, with this as its central conflict, "The Longest Ride" devolves into an unintentional chuckle-fest where miscast actors and under-written characters bump uglies with blatantly contrived "romantic complications" that wouldn't even past muster on "The Young and the Restless"--a soap opera where a determined gal once impregnated herself with a gentleman's stolen sperm only to discover, nine months later, that she had swiped the wrong sperm and instead of having mega-tycoon Victor Newman's baby, as she intended, she birthed his arch-rival Jack Abbott's tot instead. D'oh!

"The Longest Ride" begins by introducing us to Sophia (Britt Robertson), a Wake Forrest sorority gal with straight A's and an internship with a snooty-fruity art gallery in NYC. At the urging of her ditsy friend Sarah, Sophia dons a short skirt and a pair of cowboy boots and joins a gaggle of friends at the local rodeo where, Sarah promises, hot guys will be as plentiful as pig offal and cow pies.

It's during the bull riding competition that our smitten kittens first meet. Luke Collins,um, "mounts" an ornery critter named Rango (who is billed in the credits as "himself") and holds on for dear life as the bull bucks and snorts and kicks up a storm in a fruitless attempt to throw Eastwood out of his saddle. At first it appears that Luke has won the day. While he's acknowledging the cheers of the crowd, Rango, clearly pissed off, charges after Luke. To save himself from being gored in the hinder, Luke scampers up a security fence.

"You want a piece of me?": Rango isn't the only bull to be found in "The Longest Ride."

At that very moment, Luke and Sophia lock eyes in a MEANINGFUL CLOSE-UP so viewers will understand that AN UNDENIABLE SPARK has been struck. However, in his haste to avoid getting rammed by Rango, Luke drop his cowboy hat, which Sophia retrieves.

"You forgot your hat," she calls out.

"You keep it," Luke replies, as he saunters off to the holding area.

Adding even more credence to the fact that Luke and Sophia ARE DESTINED TO BE TOGETHER is the dirty look some bleached-blond tramp in a halter top shoots at Sophia.

The action then moves to a honky-tonk where folks are line dancing up a storm--but not to "Achey Breaky Heart", thank God. Luke and Sophia meet up in the parking lot and she offers to buy him a beer to celebrate his victory in the bull pen. That doesn't sit too well with Luke, who is very "old school" about such things. So Sophia agrees to let him buy her a brew. It's about this time that ditsy Sarah shows up, drunk as a skunk. This being a Nicholas Sparks movie, Sarah doesn't toss her cookies on Luke's nice new cowboy boots or wet herself or drunkenly slur "I love you and I will always love you and I just wanted you to know that", as people deeply stewed often do. Instead, Luke and Sophia quickly exchange numbers and the sorority sisters shuffle off back to the House.

"I'm going to save a horse and ride a cowboy": Sophia's ditsy sorority sister Sarah.

Unlike most men, Luke calls Sophia right away, but she doesn't call him back. Why? Because she's going to be, like, graduating in three months and moving to NYC and she doesn't need the complication of a hot bull rider messing up her coveted internship, OK? But after Sophia tries on Luke's cowboy hat, she dials his number and they arrange a meeting.

Luke arrives at the sorority house in full cowboy drag and bearing a bouquet of flowers. All of Sophia's sorority sisters are so ga-ga over her gentleman caller that they rush, en masse, to the windows and squeal, "I want a cowboy!" as the duo head off on their date with destiny.

While driving along in Luke's pick-up, our fun couple banter a bit. When Sophia asks Luke if he has any impressions of what life in a sorority house might entail, he pauses for a moment and then muses, "Pillow fights in your underwear?"

"We don't wear underwear," Sophia states with a straight face.

When Luke looks aghast at this bit of info, Sophia declares, "I got you! I got you!"

"You can turn me any which way but loose": Luke and Sophia chat 'n chew.

Viewers are spared more of this witty by-play because the duo finally arrive at the picnic site Luke has especially decked for this occasion: solar lights, a brightly colored table cloth, blue mason jars for mugs and bar-b-que from "Smokin' Amy's". Naturally, Sophia has never been treated so well by a guy and melts like butter on a hot griddle.

Things are going so well between our smitten kittens that the only fly in the (romantic) ointment is a rainstorm on the drive back home. Oh, and that car which has slide off the road and landed in a ditch and is billowing smoke. That's a bummer. Luckily, Luke manages to drag the lone passenger out and Sophia grabs a wooden box from the backseat before the vehicle goes up in flames.

Turns out the driver was Ira (Alan Alda), a grumpy old widower. The wooden box Sophia saved contains the hundreds of letters Ira wrote to his late wife, Ruth (Oona Chaplin, grand-daughter of Charlie and Rob Stark's ill-fated wife on "Game of Thrones"). Ruth arrived with her family in South Carolina from Austria in the early 1940's--and, wouldn't you know it, Ruth was a passionate art lover, just like Sophia!

While Ira recovers in the hospital and complains about every little thing, Sophia begins visiting him. To pass the time, she reads his letters out loud. This allows viewers to tumble into Flashback Land, where we learn all about Ira (played by hunky Jack Houston) and Ruth's romance and marriage. Sure, it seems idyllic, with classic '40's tunes and cars, but WWII is looming and Ruth's relatives in Austria have stopped answering their mail. Then Ira is injured in combat and later learns he cannot have children.

"The Greatest Generation": Cuddlemates Ira and Ruth.

Ruth, who has always wanted to be a mother, is deeply sadden by this news, but she and Ira marry anyway. The couple "try to adopt", but for some illogical and unexplained reason (chosen by the scriptwriters to shamelessly hammer at the viewers' tear ducts), they can't. Ruth, who becomes a teacher, later develops a bond with a young boy named David who is marginally cared for by sleazy hick relatives. The couple tries to adopt this child, but his sleazy hick relatives refuse, because that's what sleazy hick relatives do.

This being a Nicholas Sparks movie, the story of Ira and Ruth is meant to be a counter-point to Luke and Sophia's romance. However, while Ira and Ruth faced real (if watered down) issues, Luke and Sophia don't. Their biggest problems are A) Luke refusing to give up bull riding even after he's seriously hurt and B) Sophia wanting to work in a snooty NYC gallery and C) Luke thinking that a painting where dogs smoke cigars and play cards is art. Later on, Luke attends a posh event arranged by Sophia's future boss and he's asked his opinion of the exhibits. After a pause Luke drawls, "I think there's more bull@%&* here than where I work." Incensed, Sophia and Luke have a big fight and break up.

Now, if you experienced whiplash at the end of Nicholas Sparks' movie "Safe Haven", gird your loins, because "The Longest Ride" has a dilly of an ending, too. Needless to say, it involves the death of a beloved old codger (guess who!); the showing of a personal art collection at an invitation-only event; Sophia being hired to help organize the wing-ding; and Luke unexpectedly showing up and buying a picture called "A Portrait of Ruth"--which was painted by David, the child Ira and Ruth had tried to adopt while he was stuck in a group home. How did Ira become the owner of this painting? Well, David's wife gives it to Ira many years later when she read about Ruth's passing in the newspaper. Turns out David never forgot Ruth or that she told him "he could be anything he wanted to be"--so he grew up and became a physics professor and lectured in England. That's how Ira came into possession of "A Portrait of Ruth".

 But, wait, there's still more: by purchasing "A Portrait of Ruth", Luke is given the entire collection which was owned by Ira and Ruth and which includes pieces by Monet, Renoir, Andy Warhol, guys like that. How is Luke allowed to do this? Because Ira's will stipulated that the person who bought "A Portrait of Ruth" would get the whole kit and caboodle because they would understand a young child's picture of his beloved late wife was just as valuable--perhaps even more so-- anything from a grand master. And because Luke is now the owner of an art collection worth zillions, well, he can sell one of the pieces he doesn't like and save the family farm! Oh, I did I forget to mention that Luke's family farm is in need of being saved? It is, which is why Luke keeps on bull riding, despite his injuries, so he can save the family farm.

With the family farm saved, when we next see the reunited Luke and Sophia, they are doing the ultimate Nicholas Sparksian thing, which is swimming in their underwear. All's well that ends well, wouldn't you say?

Slippery when wet: Luke and Sophia swim in their underwear because, well, doesn't everybody?

Not quite. See, while watching "The Longest Ride", I couldn't help thinking that Nicholas Sparks was having trouble pulling this one off. Frankly, you know a movie is in trouble when the smitten kittens are forced to play a "sexy" scene where she hops on his practice bull and he, um, "rocks" it back and forth to simulate the motion of a bucking bronco while you know damn well this is meant to be a precursor to their upcoming sex scene. You also know your movie is in trouble when the cranky old person is played by Alan Alda, the ultimate '70's sensitive guy. Alda is a fine actor, but he's about as cranky as Mr. B Natural.  Robertson and Eastwood are attractive people, but as actors they have no chemistry. It's also interesting to note that "The Longest Ride" may be one of the few movies in recent history where the male half of the equation is treated more as eye candy than the female half. Scott Eastwood is more than up to the challenge of playing a hunky guy, but I'm sure he has greater aspirations for himself than just being scenery.

Therefore, if you choose to partake of "The Longest Ride", don't blame me if you end of saddle sore.

So, until next time, remember that art is a subjective matter, and help me SAVE THE MOVIES!

Film critics weren't the only ones who objected to "The Longest Ride."