Any movie that makes me, on exiting the theater, want to kiss my wife just as soon as I see her is all right with me.
That’s the effect of The Longest Ride, now playing at the Criterion Cinemas downtown. Starring the handsome, chisel-featured Scott Eastwood — son of the handsome chisel-featured Clint — the movie is schmaltzy yet salubrious as it tells the story of bull-riding cowboy Luke Collins’ relationship with art history major Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson). It’s a love story from the outset to the end: Danko is ultimately willing to give up the unpaid internship of her dreams to remain with her hunk, and said hunk needs her too — to give up his dream of going to Vegas as one of the top cowboys in the country, because any new falls threatens to exacerbate a head injury that might kill him.
Luke’s mother puts it a different way. “It’s eight seconds, that’s all it is. That girl, she could be the rest of your life.”
Although roundly slammed in reviews as sentimental treacle, based on a similarly sentimental novel by Nicholas Sparks, the film won me over because there just isn’t a cynical bone in its cinematic body.
I admit to being an easy touch. But as scene after scene of this unlikely pairing of beautiful people unrolled before me, I was getting a bit queasy, as if I were watching not a movie but one of those running-along- the-beach advertisement for tampons or digestion-improving yogurt.
Then one dark and rainy night everything shifts. Our beautiful young couple-in-formation, who are trying to overcome their great differences in background and interests, are driving home from a date when they come across a car burning on the roadside.
Luke rescues Ira Levinson (Alan Alda) from the flaming wreck. At this point I began to hear in my mind’s orchestra the strains of the 1960s teenage tragedy tune that I used to croon in the shower, “Tell Laura I Love Her.” Sophia, at Levinson’s mumbled instruction, is able to rescue — of course, just seconds before the gas tank ignites — a basket of precious letters he wanted to save at all costs.
They turn out to be a lifetime’s worth of exchanges between Ira and his wife Ruth. Levinson was on his way to deliver them to Black Mountain College — Ruth was an art-lover and champion collector of American modernists — when he, perhaps in the throes of remembered marital bliss for his deceased wife, zoned out and broke through a barrier and almost lost his life.
As Ira struggles to recover from injuries in the hospital, the young couple bond with him.
Yup: just in time to rescue the movie from the sorority-sister-fling-with-a-hot- cowboy trajectory on which it is launched and surely doomed, Sophia appears before Levinson’s weary, hospital bed eyes and offers to read the letters to him.
And so the movie pivots. While Sophia gets her education in a love-filled marriage — “the longest ride” — we dissolve back into World War Two, when Ira falls in love with Ruth. She turns out to be an art-loving refugee freshly arrived from Vienna come to settle in the small North Carolina town where boring-though-handsome young Ira is helping to run the family dry cleaning business.
He’s ga-ga for her in the same way Luke and Sophia are overcome with love at first sight. But here’s the rub. Ruth wants a family with lots of kids to replace those in her family surely lost in the far-away-Holocaust — although certainly little mention and no images of such horrors interfere with the fine gauzy eye gloss the film is offering us — and when Ira is drafted, he sustains a wound that will prevent him from siring children.
The movie see-saws between Ira and Ruth’s love back then and Luke and Sophia’s now. The young people are inspired by Ira’s love because he’s willing to let Ruth, at some point in the marriage, leave him for the kids she wants and he is unable to provide. He loves her so much he wants happiness for her, “even if that happiness doesn’t include me.”
When Jack Huston’s young Ira dissolves back into Alan Alda’s stalwart old Ira on oxygen in the hospital, proclaiming: “Love requires sacrifice,” there’s no denying that you hear loud waves of violins.You know it then: there will be a happy if extraordinarily contrived ending in which art, love, and the relinquishing of Luke’s potentially self-destructive bull riding career all dovetail triumphantly.
The acting never rises above competent, yet this film doesn’t sell you a bill of goods it wouldn’t buy itself. But those violins play so well, and Alda is such a canny actor, and the pictures are so pretty, that the movie doesn’t give you time to hit the pause button and ponder, as it runs to its conclusion, whether Ira’s pronouncement is true.
Plus there are little surprises, cherries on the cinematic cake. When early in the film, handsome Luke calls on Sophia at her sorority house, and all her sisters in short shorts gawk at the man’s beauty, the scene is eerily reminiscent of the elder Eastwood’s early movie performance as a handsome Yankee soldier in Clint Eastwood’s under-appreciated 1971 film The Beguiled. It’s also refreshing and unusual to have the male lead be more handsome than the female lead is beautiful, but that’s certainly the case here. And the World War Two era love that has endured— Ira’s and and Ruth’s — gives the movie some historical heft that takes the edges off the contemporary schmaltz.
I did find my wife, and I kissed her too. Thank you, movies, for making me think of our 37 years together as a “long ride.” Whatever that means, we rode over to Walgreens to pick up some milk for morning coffee.