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Dead Letter Office

The Longest Ride, the latest Nicholas Sparks joint to make the short hop from easily digestible airplane reading to easily ignored multiplex offering, is a pick-your-own-adventure story. You can select from the one about about new love, or the one about old love, or the one about the love of a camera for an actor's body. There's one about bull-riding and one about forward-thinking appreciation of mid-20th-century abstract expressionism. There's one about the unquestioned dominance of anti-intellectual attitudes toward all cultural output, and another one about the limits of feminism. How will you ever choose?

Before you do that, though, understand that the film requests your passing attention to all of them, and that these narratives will take place within the framework of letters, that retro-adorable, bizarrely powerful, ongoing Sparksian signifier of authentic emotion. Letters are written, hoarded, and rescued; letters are read aloud, both privately and publicly; letters are responsible for at least one hilarious plot twist. In SparksLand, letters are stealth weapons of salvation or destruction, like cars that unfold into Transformers.

Luke (Scott Eastwood) is a bull rider in North Carolina. He's plenty good at it, but keeps on succumbing to life-threatening head injuries. Sophia (Britt Robertson) is an art history major nearing graduation. She sees him ride a bull. He gives her his hat. Mutual crushing takes place.

On their first date, Luke and Sophia pass the scene of a car accident, where elderly Ira (Alan Alda) is trapped inside the burning vehicle. Luke pulls Ira out and Sophia retrieves an old box of letters in the back seat. As Ira recuperates in the hospital, Sophia reads the letters.

They tell the story of young Ira (Jack Huston), his art-loving wife Ruth (Oona Chaplin), and their lifetime love that began during World War II. Unable to have children, the couple spend their years collecting the great art of the era (very specifically so, as the story goes so far as to include the famous Black Mountain College in its framework).

They're very strange, these particular letters. They're required to do a lot of heavy lifting for the part of the film that takes place in flashback, and they're the sort of expository missives no person alive has written to a lover, in which the sender explains to the recipient a lot of details about a shared life they've experienced already: "Remember when you had that tooth pulled? You said it sure did hurt. And then we laughed and kissed in the rain. Remember?"

Even so, Ira and Ruth are fascinating. A Jewish couple in the mid-century American South, experiencing no anti-Semitism, no awkward conversations about their childlessness, and no "My kid could do that!" attitudes about Jackson Pollock.

The kids of 2015 are not so lucky. They're bores, for starters, with a romantic history totalling about six weeks weeks, so they're pretty much still in the heavy breathing stage. And Greg Bolotin's script and cinematographer David Tattersall's camera are fixated on exactly one half of that love match: Eastwood. Call it targeted marketing or just an attempt to balance the historically screwed-up scales of cinematic sexual objectification, but no fewer than four times do secondary characters remark on the young man's good looks. The camera, hearing these swooning comments, responds with magic-hour sunlight on his abs and slow-motion shots of sweat being wiped from his brow.

It's all just as well, because when the young ones do open their mouths, it's to fret about how she might decide to chuck her dreams of the New York art world to live on his ranch in North Carolina, or to listen to Luke badmouth her entire field of interest, something old-timey Ira would never dare. He goes so far as to call it "bullshit" in front of her potential post-graduate employer. Rodeo clowns dancing to hip hop in between eight-second bouts between man and animal is treated, rightly, as a perfectly reasonable form of cultural production. Contemporary art is afforded much less generosity; Eastwood can stand to dance with a furious bull for about twice as long as he can stomach staring at a Cy Twombly painting. City folk stuff and all that. How much generosity you bestow upon this kind of knuckleheaded half-romance is your own decision.


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