A Nicholas Sparks movie is like cinematic Jello. It sells well, the number one ingredient is sugar, and there's always room for it. Yes, the corn is as high as an elephant's eye in the latest adaptation of the bestselling romance novelist. No, we're not in Oklahoma; we're in North Carolina, and The Longest Ride won't let you forget it (somewhere, a tourism office manager is writing a fat check). Still, you'd better believe there's a bright golden haze on the meadow as college senior Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson of TVs Under the Dome) crosses the Wake Forest quad to check out a rodeo with her friends. The art major will go, she grudgingly obliges, "but I'm not wearing those cowboy boots." Cut to her feet in those cowboy boots, made for walking right into loooooove with bull-riding champion Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood, looking more than ever his father's son).
That's the kind of fresh material you can expect from this two-hour-plus rehash of The Notebook and its ilk. As ever, there's pretty young things from two different worlds, one challenged by physical ailment. For good measure, The Longest Ride adds a contrapuntal old-school couple a la The Notebook to enable gauzy Rockwellian nostalgia and a bit of WWII derring-do (staged, cheaply, like a bit of WWI derring-do). You see, after meeting cute and going on a picnic date with take-out barbecue ("No one has ever done anything like this for me before," Sophia swoons), the modern young'uns spot a car wreck and save an old coot (Alan Alda, suddenly cute-as-a-button harmless).
Sophia takes an interest in the now-hospitalized old Ira, visiting regularly to read his love letters back to him. Such is the way to parcel out flashbacks, with Alda's younger self (Jack Huston of Boardwalk Empire) romancing Austrian émigré Ruth (an overwrought Oona Chaplin). Meanwhile, the modern-day lovers ponder whether or not they have a chance at love despite a cultural divide and divergent careers: "old school" Luke is bound to risk his life on buckin' broncos after repeated concussive damage, and "contemporary"-art appreciator Sophia is about to hit the fast track of the Manhattan art-gallery world.
The latest style-deficient director to go through Camp Sparks, George Tillman Jr. (Men of Honor) makes Hollywood mulch of it all, despite the irony of being an African-American artist constrained by the formulae of Sparks' lily-white world. Plastic dramatics from Eastwood and Robertson contribute to the textureless Hallmark sheen. Truthful, if cliched, themes (time is precious, "Love requires sacrifice") might've redeemed the picture, if the rodeo climax didn't so hypocritically undercut them.
Instead, we're left to check off the contrivances and Sparksian trappings: frolics by bodies of water, bodies frolicking (with flashes of PG-13 nudity), line dancing and ballroom dancing, hospital beds and featherbeds, and the beaming highs and weepy lows of romance. Escape away, but this is no guilt-free dessert.