For this reviewer at least, a film with a good part for Alan Alda can never be judged a dead loss, and this is the case in George Tillman Junior's bringing to the screen of Nicholas Sparks's novel "The Longest Ride". Somewhat artificially, Alda as the ageing and now-hospitalised Ira Levinson tells his long story of love and WW2 service and injury by having letters written by his younger self (ably played by British actor Jack Huston) to his escapee-from-Austria girl Ruth (Oona Chaplin) read by University student of Polish extraction Sophia (Britt Robertson).
In some measure, the story of Ira and Ruth is paralleled in our time by that of the people who have rescued the former from his car accident, i.e. Sophia herself, and her newfound guy Luke (as played by son of Clint, Scott Eastwood).
In fact, there's quite a bit of cliché and syrup in there, as well as heavy doses of hopeless love, lost love, regained love, forbearing and sacrificing love, resentful love, career versus love and so on, and not all of the contexts are especially plausible or well-done. Ira's GI wartime recollection in particular begs a military historian's question as to where and how, while the ending looks a mite too mushy and "just-so" to tolerate readily.
Ironically, given this sketchiness, the one (major) aspect of the film rendered with remarkably raw clarity and authenticity - indeed in near-documentary style - is the above-mentioned "elephant in the room", i.e. the fact that Luke is a cowboy-rancher (albeit one from North Carolina!), and in fact a Professional Bullrider of America. Given that this is a man who (repeatedly) seeks to remain for at least 8 seconds on a bull which really DOES NOT want to be ridden, it might well be argued that at least 78% of the potential audience for a film of this otherwise-romantic genre has been lost right there!
An interesting (possibly even courageous) approach from the makers, then?
Clearly, this "sport" has at least a measure of cruelty associated with it, and it is shown here in pretty exhaustive detail, in what is in no way a critical presentation.
After some soul-searching and with misgivings, my wife and I powered on through this, deciding to accept the core of the Sparks story as it was designed to be, (from our point of view) warts and all.
And the film of course does likewise, not offering the slightest suggestion that what is being portrayed might be for some - indeed many - controversial or questionable, or simply archaically other-worldly and aberrant.
And it has to be conceded that the self-belief present in the piece does achieve a lot in emerging triumphant from the mix of possible tastelessness and implausibility. Alda does his job as well as may be expected, and the just-meant-to-be Robertson-Eastwood pairing of opposites has both its personality-related and physical attractions (needless to say, the film eventually finds an opportunity to depict them unclothed, and it's easy enough on the eye).
So, those who come to "The Longest Ride" expecting a tearjerker love story (in fact two love stories) with frills attached, will not I feel be disappointed, albeit with the big proviso that they can handle the bull-riding subject matter - and that is a rather big "if", I believe.