Review: Nicholas Sparks serves up some tepid leftovers with ‘The Longest Ride’

If you were to gain access to the computer where Nicholas Sparks writes his books, I'll bet you'd find that “search and replace” is the most commonly used function.

“The Longest Ride” is the latest movie to escape from the popular romance writer's head, and it is about as flimsy an exercise in formula as you're likely to see this year. It's not that it is unprofessionally made, or that it lacks the polish of a typical studio release. Far from it. The film is handsomely produced, and everyone does exactly what they were hired to do, both in front of the camera and behind it.

It would not surprise me if most reviews for this film are openly hostile. It is a wretched piece of writing, and an absurd final product. It almost seems pointless to pile on, though. The audience who loves Sparks is going to go see this film and they'll no doubt walk away satisfied. The same is true when I see a terrible but successfully branded action movie or comedy; you're not going to dissuade the audience that is already onboard. The most you can do as a critic is make your case for why this version of the popular thing is sub-standard, even by the admittedly low bar of what a “good” version of this would look like.

There's a part of me that wonders if this is all a trap. I wonder if Nicholas Sparks ever gets up, goes to his computer, and then just sits there, not wanting to even turn on the screen, because he can't face another slight variation on a formula he is weary of using. Or does he look at his success, thank god for it, and happily crank out one more copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, delighted to do so?

Craig Bolotin adapted the book for director George Tillman Jr., and it's familiar territory, complete with a twist that you will see coming about a hour before it arrives if you've ever seen a movie before. The film takes place partially in the present day, where it tells a love story between an art major (Britt Robertson) and a rodeo cowboy (Scott Eastwood), and partially in the past as a story being told by a bedridden Alan Alda about his younger self (Jack Huston) and his wife (Oona Chaplin). The whole thing is enormously mild-mannered, a love story about people overcoming the slightest of obstacles for very little reward, until get to that twist ending, which is so big and ridiculous that I was worried about bothering the people around me with my laughter.

There's a reason “The Notebook” will remain the best thing Nicholas Sparks ever attaches his name to, and it's because of the almost incendiary chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. That film is just as silly in terms of structure and just as mechanical in its attempts to manipulate the audience, but it works because there is such heat to it all. It didn't hurt that James Garner crying is one of those things that hits us right in the center of our collective cultural memory. Jim Rockford doesn't cry, so watching him break down and weep while professing his love is one of those things that is almost impossible to resist.

“The Longest Ride” carries no such cultural charge, and the cast here just can't make it work. Britt Robertson is going to be front and center for Brad Bird's “Tomorrowland,” and I'm certainly hoping she'll be great there. She's almost impossible to judge here because she's been given such an irritating non-role, and she has zero chemistry with Scott Eastwood. I didn't realize there is an Eastwood nose until I saw this film, and they work hard to make sure you're recalling young Clint Eastwood when they have Scott all cowboyed up. He seems perfectly amiable, but he's that romance novel non-threatening blank of a character that he has to be. There's nothing to it. The two of them never once seem to have any energy between them, and it makes it hard to even wait through the plot mechanics, much less invest in them.

I get it. This is an industry. I'm sure that this satisfies whatever craving it is that drives people to pick his books up, one after another. But as a film, it's pure filler product. It will painlessly make its way through the entire system, from theatrical to its eventual permanent home, twice a year weekend re-runs on the Lifetime Movie Network. And if you ask me about it a year from now, I'll bet I won't even remember the title.

“The Longest Ride” is in theaters Friday.