Ever since "The Notebook" made moviegoers swoon in 2004, Nicholas Sparks' name has been synonymous with teary-eyed romance.
The author's latest novel adapted for the big screen, "The Longest Ride," is no exception, offering two love stories at once. But the most heartfelt affair here isn't between its impossibly good-looking stars; it's shared by a couple 70 years their senior through a story told in flashbacks.
Sophia ( Britt Robertson ) and Luke ( Scott Eastwood , son of Clint) comprise the younger pair. She's an art-history student at North Carolina's Wake Forest University with plans to work in a New York gallery. He's a competitive bull rider trying to claim the national title. They meet when her friends persuade her to go to the rodeo. He's in the ring, and during a stunt, his cowboy hat flies off and lands right in her lap. Obviously, they have to go on a date.
A convoluted and unrealistic set of circumstances lead them to meet Ira ( Alan Alda ), a widowed curmudgeon who clings to a collection of love letters he wrote to his late wife. It is through these letters that the young couple, and the audience, learns about Ira's love affair with Ruth. Told through extended, sepia-tinted flashbacks, the young Ira ( Jack Huston ) and Ruth ( Oona Chaplin ) share the kind of romance that movies are made for.
It was love at first sight for the two, who meet in the early days of World War II. By the time he's called to serve, they're a couple, and Ruth waits for Ira until an injury sends him home for good. Despite years of personal challenges, they keep their marriage intact.
The letters, and the flashback sequences they inspire, reveal "the longest ride" has nothing to do with bull-riding: It's about Ira and Ruth's lifelong love.
While ostensibly meant to illustrate the timeless nature of romance, the richness of this relationship makes its modern foil seem superficial by comparison.
Eastwood is a fitting cowboy — handsome and sculpted, with a touch of his dad's famous swagger. He's believable as a bull-rider, and shows enough vulnerable charm to be a romantic leading man.
The cherubic, pillow-lipped Robertson makes for a fine potential partner. She's pretty and sweet, yet headstrong and focused when it comes to her future.
Both actors are easy on the eyes, but lack the fireworks, and just plain fire, to be a truly convincing onscreen romance.
The script by Craig Bolotin sets up each couple as sacrificing for love, but Sophia and Luke's struggle just doesn't seem as serious. The unnecessary setting of Sophia's sorority house doesn't help: Her sisters apparently exist only to wax euphoric about her date's looks, then disappear from the narrative.
"I want a cowboy," one says.
Both couples are filmed lovingly by George Tillman , Jr. ("Soul Food"), who was inspired by his own 25-year marriage to helm the story. He also brings a gritty realism to the bull-riding shots, using a rider's-view camera to convey the power and intensity of the animal and sport.
If only the same power and intensity existed in Sophia and Luke's love affair.
Still, the film is likely to satisfy Sparks fans. And it brings something new to the romance genre: bull riding.
"The Longest Ride," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some sexuality, partial nudity and some war and sports action." Running time: 124 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.