Dirty Harry’s back! Talk about a chip off the old block; young Scott Eastwood is the spitting image of dad, Clint.
Granted, a slightly more corn-fed chip. More all-American, less mysterious, probably more Hollywood brattish. “I’ll stroll into male modeling, then seamlessly segue into movie stardom,” he’s probably been thinking since age 12 (who wouldn’t?). Lacks the original, hard-eyed, glinty Clint-squint and snake-hide voice. In the nomenclature of the current men’s movement, Clint’s got more warrior, Scott’s got more lover.
Nevertheless! Scott’s very Clinty! We very much enjoy the Eastwood brand. Perfectly suited for cowboys and rugged ranchers; the Clint-clan wears the hat well—they pull off the scruffbeard-with-cheroot combo most excellently.
Outstanding! So what’s junior up to? Scott plays his first lead role as Luke Collins, a pro rodeo bull rider in the surprisingly effective cutie-pie chick flick “The Longest Ride.” He gets to wear the hat, drive the cowgirls crazy, and put the world on notice: There’s a new Eastwood in town.
It must also be said that while the deviant whips-and-chains mores of “Fifty Shades of Grey” are now unhappily ensconced in the American dye vat of things little girls should not see (but will, of course, see anyway because what parent can control 2:00 a.m. under-bedroom-covers movie-streaming?) “The Longest Ride” easily trumps that movie in terms of giving girls a real man to pine for and sigh about.
Big, bad bull “Sweet Thang” bucks Luke straight into the hospital. So dangerous! But he acts like it’s a mere scratch. Because he’s so committed and passionate! His mom (Lolita Davidovich) is worried sick! Sigh.
Young Sophia (Britt Robertson)—she’s not like the other fatuous rodeo groupies. She’s an art-history major getting ready to ditch North Carolina, headed for the big time, interning at a posh New York gallery.
But, peer-pressured by the Wake Forest University sorority feeding frenzy—”Let’s go ogle hot bull riders!”—Sophia thinks, maybe just this one time, just to shut her ditzy roommates up.
Soon she’s sporting the cowgirl boots and offering that manly bull rider his dropped hat back. He says, “Keep it.” And the peanut-gallery cowgirls say: “Work it girl!” And of course that can only mean one thing…
Old-fashioned date. With a slightly ridiculous cowboy-booted-hatted walk all the way across campus from cowboy truck to dorm, bearing flowers. And a picnic by the lake accompanied by katydids. That’s so nice. Isn’t that nice? Sometimes Sophia looks like she’ll break into song. Country and Western song. And yet, if we take a second to curb our knee-jerk cynicism … it’s kinda great.
Headed home from the date, suddenly there’s an old man in a burning car in a ditch (Alan Alda). Luke rescues him; Sophia rescues his box of ancient letters. And you’ve already guessed what the letters are for. They are for reading!
This is a Nicholas Sparks film. Remember Sparks’s “The Notebook”? That notebook got read. If a plot ain’t broke don’t fix it, because if you have somebody read old writing out of notebooks and letters, you automatically have a new narrative about an old couple that teaches a young couple. Which is a fine formula as formulas go. Kids need elder guidance. We forget that.
So, two couples from different eras, but living in the typical Sparks-ian framework of class, war, and health issues: the bull-riding, NASCAR, C&W demographic versus Ira and Ruth’s 60-year romance.
Ruth’s an Austrian émigré to America, running from Hitler. Like Sophia, she’s (conveniently) an art fan. Ira gets a war wound that prohibits starting a family, so Ruth compensates by art-collecting contemporary art stars (Matisse, Kandinsky, Rothko, Picasso, and so on).
Meanwhile, back to the kids. Treacly C&W lyrics like “Two hearts beating as one,” while Luke takes Sophia horseback riding. Cheesy, much? Enormous amounts of it. A half a gram more cheese, we’d explode like Ben Kingsley’s character with the raging cheese allergy in “The Boxtrolls.” And yet, if we squelch the knee-jerk sarcasm for two minutes … its’ kinda great.
But then, of course, dissonance sets in. Bull rider Luke says of the pretentious modern art show he suffers through for Sophia’s sake, that it reminds him of certain aspects of his work, having to do with bulls. Never was a truer word spoken. How will we achieve the resolution?
Ira waxes philosophical with platitudes: “How the people you’re closest to can so quickly become strangers.” “Love requires sacrifice, always.” “I still wrote Ruth letters, even though I saw her every day.”
Similar to that other Southern paean to staying down on the farm (but doing really well financially), “Sweet Home Alabama,” along comes a deus ex machina, compliments of Ira. But we won’t say whether Son of Clint gets the girl.
The reviewer’s got an admittedly low tolerance for cornpone movies. But how quickly things that hark back to more innocent, upright times get labeled cornpone. We can’t have a pure experience lately; we can’t have some lovin’ these days without whips and handcuffs. It’s the classic American segue of drinking Sloe Gin Fizzes in junior high (junior high school!) and ending up 10 years later drinking bourbon neat. From sweetness to pain, because we get more numb and desire increasingly more stimulation, to the detriment of staying balanced. But once we get fed up and detox and do a cleanse … it’s kinda great.
So let the record show that both young couples, (the current and the flashback couples), have highly enjoyable, innocent chemistries. “The Longest Ride” is not art; it’s a young Eastwood tanned-abs showcase, and you can bet it’s going to engage cowgirl attention spans with great fixity all across this Clint-appreciating nation of ours. But they’ll come away with a more wholesome hero to hope for. The Ruth and Ira portions remind us of how people used to value honoring the mundane—dressing up to go to the movies. Ruth’s father’s ironclad opinion that true art ended with the arrival of Matisse and Picasso reminds us about when art was pure and simple and uplifting and not dark and twisted.
Animal activists may storm out; the bull’s anger and distress are readily apparent. Rodeo’s unarguably exploitative. Vegans will vamoose.
The best thing, though, in addition to “The Longest Ride” doing well in the sorority houses of America and spurring much dating, is that we can all now look forward to origin stories of “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “High Plains Drifter.”
I personally look forward to the prequel that shows when Dirty Harry decides his standard issue police revolver just doesn’t cut it, and graduates to his legendary .44 Magnum. I imagine the line: “This is a .357 Magnum—not really, quite … the most powerful handgun in the world. Let me see that bigger one.”
Director: George Tillman Jr..
Starring: Scott Eastwood, Britt Robertson, Alan Alda, Oona Chaplin, Jack Huston, Lolita Davidovich
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Release date: April 10
3 stars out of 5