[26 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Chemistry is the key to a good onscreen romance. Remove this vital cog, and the entire cinematic machine sputters and dies, right? Well, that’s only partially true. One assumes that a brilliantly directed script, acted with perfection by performers who can emulate attraction without actually evoking same, could be passable. It’s safe to say that many a mainstream pairing has benefited from such a “professionalism vs. passion” conceit. Nights at Rodanthe, the latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks sudser, doesn’t have to worry about ardor. It offers up confirmed compatibles Richard Gere and Diane Lane in their third onscreen pairing. Unfortunately, every other aspect of this pointless drama undermines our lead’s natural allure.
When her estranged husband returns after a seventh month absence and asks for forgiveness, Adrienne Willis is not quite sure what to do. Her kids definitely want their dad back, but she has a hard time accepting his casual adultery and newfound desperation. Retreating to a friend’s bed and breakfast along the North Carolina coast, she hopes to sort things out. There she meets Dr. Paul Flanner, himself plagued by personal doubts. Together, the lost and lonely couple battle a major hurricane and internal struggles, all in a last gasp attempt at happiness. Of course, in this kind of story, such joys are fleeting, and when he finally goes off to South America in search of his estranged son, Adrienne wonders if she’ll ever see Paul again.
Sometimes, source material says it all. A luminous cast and a worthy director will have a hard time making a cinematic silk purse out of a literary sow’s ear. It is clear from his prose that Sparks spent most of his developmental years memorizing the works of Robert James Waller. This Windstorms of North Carolina Counties is so overwrought and Harlequin-ed that only the most susceptible of spinsters or inexperienced poetry majors will fall for its faux passions. While Diane Lane and Richard Gere are a great onscreen couple, the set up stunts their appeal. There is so much hand wringing and heart sickness here, so many unexplained subplots and unclear character motives that by the time the death/denouement arrives, we’re too confused to care.
As with this summer’s monster menopausal hit, Mamma Mia, Nights in Rodanthe is helmed by a novice filmmaker lifted from the far more restrictive world of theater. While George C. Wolfe has done some decent work (most notably, the TV movie Lackawanna Blues), his cinematic capabilities are severely limited. The illogical seashore setting - a baroque B&B that, by all accounts, should have been swept into the ocean the first high tide - gets several scope defying long shots, the helicopter and or crane covering every inch of its dollhouse designs. Indeed, Nights often appears more concerned about art design and location than it does direct emotional connections - and even then, what’s maudlin is also mechanical and manipulative.
And then there are the wasted elements, the performances and plot points that just don’t add up. James Franco, looking dirty and disheveled, plays Gere’s son like a photoshoot cipher. Since both he and his big screen papa aren’t given enough interpersonal backstory, their breakup seems silly and their reunion forced. Similarly, Viola Davis cuts an intriguing swath as the owner of the inn who apparently heads to Miami to answer an international booty call. Her personal explanations, steeped in ethnic history and the African American experience are reduced to a series of ‘spirit’ paintings and the kind of Civil War memories relegated to a Ken Burns outtake. In both cases, these characters play like structural leftovers, elements that had to be included less the fanbase froth over their omission.
At least the craggy face of Scott Glenn has a purpose, albeit an ultimately uninteresting one. As the husband of the woman who died on Gere’s operating table, he arrives with an accent so thick and a mug so wrinkled you’d swear he was a piece of human folk art. His confrontations with his costar are broad and banal, dipped in soap opera slop so sour that we wince at their forced sincerity. Much of Nights comes across as the outline for how not to create a five-handkerchief weeper, avoiding realism and any sense of authenticity to pour on the preplanned contrivances. Nothing here feels normal. Instead, we are witnessing every lonely lady’s greatest fantasy flash into a similarly styled breakdown.
With its numerous false endings, vacant self-importance, and drippy melodramatics, Nights in Rodanthe couldn’t be more unsatisfying. One keeps waiting for the movie to sizzle, to suggest something other than the standard guy/girl/grave strategies. This is the kind of dud which stirs imaginary scenarios where Gere and Lane wind up, inexplicably, in a classic romance that really delivers the tear drops. Again, there’s no doubting their chemistry and compatibility. In a perfect motion picture paradise, such connections would be enough. But our current cinematic state is uneven and often unresponsive. This describes Nights in Rodanthe fairly accurately. This should have been sentimental and sweet. Instead, it’s further proof that one confirmed filmic facet is just not enough.