Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Longest Ride.

The Longest Ride (George Tillman, Jr., 2015)

BLOG NOTE: Check out the fancy high-concept sequel to this blog, Taste My Queue. (I say "high-concept," but I'm about to watch Dunston Checks In. SMH.)

Category: SPARKS BACK. LA DECIMA. We’re in the midst of quite a prodigious run of Sparks adaptations. 2015 marks the fourth straight year that one of these have been released, and the next one, The Choice, is due in 2016. What a time to be alive! 

But as is the case both literally and metaphorically with so many goddamned bodies of water in these movies, the tide may soon be turning. Per Wikipedia, all nine of the previous adaptations have made money, but the last one, The Best of Me, only barely turned a profit. This one, released on April 10, looks like it might lose money. (I blame myself for having waited over a week to see it.) So the automatic green light that has greeted these movies in the past decade may soon turn, at the very least, yellow.

Devotees of this blog are already more than familiar with the Sparks oeuvre and my thoughts on it. What’s worth repeating is the fact that the public image of Nicholas Sparks has undergone a bit of a hit lately. As noted in our last journey together, some of the accusations leveled at Sparks in a recent lawsuit are… troubling. We'll return to this later. You may have also heard recently that Nicholas Sparks and his wife have filed for divorce, which is obviously unfortunate. This Gawker post contains some remarks about the situation that I won’t repeat, but wish I had come up with.

For this year’s pilgrimage, I was accompanied by two Sparks enthusiasts and friends of the blog (FsOTB): Sam Thomas and, for the fourth movie in a row, Lindsay Filardo. The other people in the theater did not mind our frequent commentary, and for that they too are granted honorary FOTB status. Thx.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Based on the bestselling novel by master storyteller Nicholas Sparks [Editor’s note: ha!], The Longest Ride centers on the star-crossed love affair between Luke, a former champion bull rider looking to make a comeback, and Sophia, a college student who is about to embark upon her dream job in New York City's art world. As conflicting paths and ideals test their relationship, Sophia and Luke make an unexpected and fateful connection with Ira, whose memories of his own decades-long romance with his beloved wife deeply inspire the young couple. Spanning generations and two intertwining love stories, The Longest Ride explores the challenges and infinite rewards of enduring love.”

What I thought of the movie: OK. There are some positives here, most notably the acting. It’s actually uniformly pretty solid, especially Britt Robertson, who I look forward to seeing in the upcoming Tomorrowland. If they just changed a few things, this movie might have had a chance to be good. The things that they would have to change include several major plot lines, nearly all of the characterization, and pretty much the entire first hour and last half hour (the movie is about two hours long). But other than that it’s not bad!

What made this one more fun than some of the others was that Sparks actually tries to do a couple of new things here, and for someone like me who has now seen ten of these things, a little variety goes a long way. For instance, while the movie cannot help but take place in North Carolina, our main hunk Luke (Scott Eastwood) is a professional bull rider, rather than a professional sailboat fixer-upper or a professional romantic-letter-writer. We open with Luke suffering a traumatic injury while riding a scary bull named Rango. (I don’t think this is a good name for a scary bull. If I were naming a scary bull after a recent animated film, I’d go with Happy Feet.)

Meanwhile, college senior Sophia (Britt Robertson) lives in a sorority house with 25 cardboard cutouts that resemble women. All of the cardboard cutouts have Cowboy Fever, and they drag Sophia, who is studying and thus is Not Like The Other Girls, to a bull riding event populated by hundreds of other cardboard cutouts of men and women in cowboy boots. Luke successfully rides the bull, his cowboy hat falls off, she retrieves it and tries to return it to him, he tells her to “keep it,” which I have to imagine is a standard smooth smoothie bull rider line. He’s probably got a thousand hats just like it! They meet, they chat, and they eventually go on a date, even though she’s reluctant to get close to him since she’s leaving North Carolina after she graduates (in two months) for a fancy internship at an art gallery in New York.

(Lindsay: Britt Robertson looks like a Bratz doll [specifically, Valentina] so it's hard for me to believe anything she says about wanting to fit in or not being like other girls or ever having a rough go of it.)

We are ten minutes into the movie and I am actively rooting against the two of them getting together. Their conversations are wildly boring (Sam almost left, but didn’t by virtue of her FOTB status and the fact that I was her ride), and they clearly have nothing in common. The way Sparks tries to make them an interesting pair is by depicting Luke as a man out of time, the quiet, gentlemanly cowboy who shocks Sophia by actually asking her out on a date, as opposed to texting her “what are you doing later” like all the other guys do (actual thing she says). When Sophia finally agrees to let him take her out, we see Luke striding through her college campus in his full cowboy regalia holding a bouquet of flowers, and the college students look at him as if he is an actual alien. (Also, the cardboard cutouts sorority sisters literally moan after he arrives to pick her up. One yells, “I WANT A COWBOY.” I am not making this up.)

Meanwhile, Sophia is a Modern Woman, who is bemused and almost offended by his chivalry, his politeness, his insistence on paying for things, etc. Again, we’re just ten minutes into the movie and I already want to break things, because I know that everything that the movie has told us about Sophia is code for “she’s one of these uptight, overeducated feminists,” and that, by the end of the movie, he’s going to win her over at the expense of her independence, and that this is absolutely going to be yet another movie in which a complex, independent woman has her edges smoothed (in every sense of the term) by a Real Man. Ban Men.

The other thing to know about Sophia is that she is v interested in art. Not any particular artist or period or style or medium, just art. Good Lord does she love art. She rhapsodizes about art for a full minute on their date, while he furrows his brow at all the ten-cent words she’s using. (She mentions that she’s received a scholarship to college, and he says, “Scholarship! Pretty fancy.” Why do I do this to myself?) Art is a motif in the film. Take note.

One other thing about this scene from professional makeup expert Lindsay Filardo: “So he asks her what color her nail polish is, and she says ‘clear,’ and he marvels at how down to Earth she is. ‘This one's different, Ma,’ he later tells his mom. If I were his mom I'd be like, ‘Even if her nails are clear though she still did sit down to paint them so she's maybe not SO different.’”
I cannot stress enough how wrong these two characters are for each other. It’s also important to note how little we know about Sophia’s life, other than the fact that she’s in a sorority but is Not Like The Other Girls. The one piece of background information we get about her pre-college life is an unusually random tidbit: her parents are Polish immigrants who own a diner in New Jersey, so she had a “weird” childhood. This fact has no bearing on the plot and next to no bearing on her character; I think it’s thrown in to somehow try to establish the fact that Sophia and Luke are both outsiders, although it’s kind of hard to call Luke, a cowboy who is the word “unf” personified, an outsider. As Lindsay notes, I'm surprised Sparks decided to give Sophia the affliction ‘daughter of Polish immigrants who own a diner’ and not ‘cancer.’ Also, these Polish immigrants must be doing pretty well to be able to afford those sorority dues, which I imagine are not covered by her ‘fancy’ scholarship.”


So she mentions her internship and, as if hearing my shouts at the movie screen, tells him that this probably isn’t going be a thing. Disappointed, he drives her home in the rain (SPARKS THEME oh yeah it started to rain at some point, and oh yeah the date took place at some lake or whatever, I’m just numb to all this stuff at this point), and on the way they discover Ira (Alan Alda), whose car has gone off the road and crashed into a ditch. As Luke pulls him from the car, Ira calls out for a box that Sophia retrieves from the front seat, a box which we learn is full of old letters (Lindsay: “I knew it’d be memories!”) that he’d written to his late wife, Ruth. When Ira wakes up in the hospital, Sophia begins reading the letters to him, because he is old and can’t read anymore (but he can still drive). “Tell me your story, old man,” she says, “because your story exists to teach me important lessons about my own life, and also we need a framing device for this movie, and also people liked the flashbacks in The Notebook.”

The flashbacks give us the most notable new development in the entire Sparks oeuvre: THEY’RE JEWS. Ira and Ruth (played in the flashbacks by Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin) are openly, unmistakably Jewish. I’m not gonna lie to you folks, I was v nervous about this. You gotta respect the man for trying to broaden his horizons, but then also remember that time that he was recently sued for being, among other things, a huge anti-Semite? Things could have gone really badly here.

But inasmuch as anything in a Nicholas Sparks movie can go well, it goes well. As with The Notebook, the flashbacks are definitely the best part of the movie. We follow Ira and Ruth’s life together: how they meet in prewar North Carolina right after she’s immigrated from Austria, their courtship and engagement, her desire to start a large family and her love of Art (Art is a motif), his injury during World War II that renders him unable to have children, the issues they face that stem from their inability to procreate, etc. It’s not bad, although it’s certainly far from perfect. They write off the whole “why don’t they just adopt?” question with a throwaway mention that adoption was “not easy in those days,” which sure is convenient. All the stuff about art is just as grating in the flashbacks as it is in the present day. (Sparks clearly just Wikipedia-ed “art” before writing most of these lines.)

Let’s address the letters (pun v much intended). It’s just hilarious, at this point: there’s no way that this man can ever write a book without one character writing letters to another character. But there’s a new level of crazy in this movie, because it quickly becomes clear that these letters describe events that the two characters EXPERIENCED TOGETHER. And they’re not letters that he wrote to her years later: they’re from that time period! It’s like if you and I went to the grocery store together, and then that night I wrote you a letter about that time we went to the grocery store together. Why is he immediately writing her letters? Why is he mailing them? Why not just write a diary or something? Ira goes off to fight in World War II, but most, if not all, of the letters appear to come from either before or after the war, when they were together. For nearly all of the movie, the two characters are either dating or married. It makes no sense, and I think they know it, because at a certain point they just abandon the “Sophia reads Ira his old letters” device and just have Ira recount stories from his life to her. It’s so, so shoddy. (Also, they walk on the beach together at one point, and Sam leaned over to me and said, “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.” #Noah+Allie4eva)

Anyway. The present-day plot groans on alongside the flashbacks. After spending time with Ira together, they get closer to one another, eventually doing the do in an unusually-risqué-for-Sparks sex scene. Problems arise, which makes sense because, lest we forget, they are wrong for each other. There is the obligatory scene where the down-to-earth guy goes to some fancy/rich party that the fancy/rich girl is at and feels really out of place, a scene that is in so many of Sparks’s movies that I’ve lost count. In this movie, it’s an art gallery event that she invites him to for some reason. To that point: it is unclear how and why he has become her "boyfriend." A much more likely outcome for this sort of relationship involves her thinking, “Well, he’s simple, but my God is he hot, so let’s just have a no-strings-attached fling for the next two months, and then later this year I'll be living it up at Nobu with all my art friends, telling stories about his torso.”

So he goes to this thing, says something about how the art there looks like scribbles on a piece of paper (Classic Modern Art Insult), and insults her new boss. They fight. It’s dumb. (Lindsay: TBH it was way unprofessional for her to invite anyone, let alone her boyfriend of a month who she's gonna kiss a little and later scream at outside the event next to a huge window.”) God, that scene was trash.

All the while, there’s the looming problem of Luke’s bull riding. He claims that he needs to keep doing it because he needs the money so that his widowed mother can keep their ranch. (Lindsay: What would you DO if you were a widowed lady and your son was Scott Eastwood? I'm not gonna say it but I'm gonna strongly imply it!!!!” Ew.) As the movie progresses, though, it becomes clear that everyone else in his life is totally against him doing it. His mother never expresses a desire to stay there at all, and even tells him at the end of the movie that she literally does not care about the ranch. (There was an amazing moment in the theater: during a scene where Luke attempts to rationalize his continued bull riding, Sam leaned over to me and said, “It’s all I know!” And not five seconds later, Luke said those exact words. Sam “Nicholas Sparks” Thomas, ladies and gentlemen.)

Digression: at the risk of offending all of my readers (ha!) who are fans of bull riding: bull riding is trash. I’m not saying that it doesn’t take skill, but it is an insane, inhumane enterprise, and the film’s attempts to romanticize or at least normalize it fail miserably. The injuries sustained by bull riders in this movie (and presumably IRL) are horrific, and the fact that Luke keeps participating in this events indicates that the professional bull riding circuit lags behind even the NFL with respect to player safety. (Although there is one hilarious scene where Sophia looks up a YouTube clip of Luke’s major injury, which occurred before they met. The video, supposedly taken from a TV broadcast of the event, looks like it was directed by Michael Bay. You’ve never seen such camera angles in your entire life. There’s an overhead shot of him lying on the ground that is mind-boggling.)

But -- and this is important -- the movie wants us to support him (at least up to a certain point). Luke says that it’s inevitable that bull riders will get hurt, and that it’s only a matter of when and how bad. To which I, along with most of the characters in the film and most sane people on the planet, would say: THEN WHY ARE YOU DOING IT?! Are there literally no other jobs that he could find (in this economy)? Maybe go to night school, Chuck! And we’re supposed to root for this character! If you hadn’t already been taken out of the movie by this point, you get taken out of it by this stuff.

(Lindsay: The only thing less important than bull riding is art.)

After the art spat, they kind of accept it’s not really going to work. Sophia prepares to leave for New York, when, of course, at the very moment she’s about to get in the cab, he gets concussed by a bull, which for most of us would be astonishingly unlucky, but for him is "a thing that he pretty much expects to happen to him." She rushes to the hospital, where a doctor tells him his riding career is over. Luke, who has only about seventeen years of school left before he gets his medical degree, disagrees. Which is pretty much a relationship-ending thing to say, in my opinion. A human being of her supposed intelligence (not to mention her complete incompatibility with him in every arena other than the sack, but never mind) cannot even implicitly condone the idea of him wanting to continue bull riding. But, of course, she stays with him in North Carolina (still vehemently disagreeing with his desire to get back on the bull, at least), and thus jeopardizes her internship in New York. It is an unforgivable choice for the character to make, and I would have been madder about it if I still knew how to feel.

But it gets even worse! Ira tells Sophia the rest of his story: that he and Ruth overcame their issues and lived a long and happy life together, despite their lack of children. His importance to the plot thus exhausted, he immediately dies, and Sophia and Luke are invited to an auction of Ira and Ruth’s extremely valuable art collection, featuring works by Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and other names that Sparks found on Wikipedia’s “List of famous modern American artists.”

Now here comes the Sparksness. On the day of the auction, not long after his latest head injury, Luke goes to compete in an important event, and is tasked with riding Happy Feet Rango, the scary bull from the beginning of the movie. Despite all advice to the contrary, he tries his best, but is thrown from the bull and killed. Devastated, Sophia buys a painting of a beautiful bull, leaves it at Luke’s grave, and, vowing to never forget him, sets off to New York to begin her career in the art world. The end.

Except.

That is not what happens.

What happens is that Luke succeeds. Luke lasts the requisite eight seconds on the bull and dismounts safely. Luke wins the event. Luke does all of this despite having very recently undergone a traumatic head injury. We are meant to cheer when this happens. Most shockingly of all: Luke is not punished by the cruel God of the Sparks universe for his idiocy. QUITE THE OPPOSITE.

Luke goes to the auction, and is the only one among the sea of stuffed-shirt art enthusiasts to bid on a portrait of RUth that her former student had painted of her, winning it for $600. Sophia forgives him for everything and they reconcile.

And then.

Ira’s lawyer Howard Sanders, the third Jewish character to ever appear in a Sparks film, reveals that Ira’s will contained a clause stipulating that the person who bought that portrait of Ruth would receive the ENTIRE COLLECTION.

That is what happens.

I’ll let Lindsay take it from here: So they become millionaires! (Well, he does, but you'd better believe she's on board now.) They quickly build an enormous, gleaming museum where she can bring ART to the good ranchers of North Carolina! They run into a lake, both doffing their expensive clothes to reveal the perfect bodies underneath, and the movie ends. Later that night, I found a Swedish Fish in my bed and ate it.

How I felt after the movie ended: Here’s the thing that is so mind-bendingly insane about this movie: it would have been BETTER with that fake sad ending that I made up. I mean, it still wouldn’t have been a good movie, but I think that boilerplate insane Sparksian manipulative ending would have been more fitting. (This shows you just how far I’ve fallen since starting this blog. I am advocating insane manipulative death twist endings at this point.)

“Love requires sacrifice,” Ira tells Sophia right before he dies. That’s the lesson, inasmuch as there is one, from the flashback scenes: Ruth sacrifices her desire to have children because she loves Ira so much, and Ira sacrifices… well, he takes one to the nads during the war, but other than that he kind of gets whatever he wants. (He’s a Man, after all.) Anyway. The sad ending I made up, in which Luke doesn’t sacrifice for Sophia, tries to keep on bull riding and dies tragically, would have been far more poignant. Sophia would have learned a real lesson about love, and eventually would have moved on with her life, never forgetting the boring cowboy who taught her how to ride a horse (not a euphemism, but also very possibly also a euphemism).

But instead, we get a deus ex machina, a total BS cop-out of an ending. We get a movie that sidesteps all the hard choices that the characters should be making here. Luke doesn’t have to reckon with the fact that he’s selfishly taken his life in his hands multiple times, over the protestations of literally everyone he cares about; he gets to quit not because he wants to or realizes he’s wrong, but because he’s fallen ass-backwards into a fortune. Sophia doesn’t have to challenge herself in New York and pursue her dream job, she has it fall into her lap in North Carolina. And so we’re left with two characters, characters who the movie does not even remotely convince us are meant to be together (I give them six months, tops), who are in the 99th percentile of physical attractiveness, and who through no hard work or sacrifice of their own see their wildest dreams come true. Taste My “Must Be Nice.”

6 comments:

  1. Synecdoche, New York

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  2. (That was Andrew Grossman, btw)

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  3. Nicholas Sparks once burned my hamburger

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  4. Ugh, this is a different blog than the one where you get to comment and make you watch the next movie? These rules are too complicated for me. Also, now I feel like one of those old people who signs their facebook posts.

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  5. If there's a woman that can take Nicholas Sparks' presence for more than ten consecutive seconds, he should hang on to her like grim death

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