Adrienne (Diane Lane) has a black best friend. In an alternative universe, this probably tells you something about Adrienne, and might even tell you something about the friend, Jean (Viola Davis) — a touching indication of their childhoods in North Carolina, perhaps a way to frame the struggles they endured or the pleasures they shared. But in Nights in Rodanthe, this friendship is merely a point of departure for Adrienne’s romantic adventure.
The fact that this adventure occurs in Jean’s North Carolina house, when Jean’s away and Adrienne is house-sitting, only underlines the contrivance represented by the friendship. Certainly, the house is sensational. With bright blues shutters and multiple stories, it’s built on stilts on the edge of the Outer Banks. Views from the windows are both thrilling and soothing, all water and sky and possibility. Jean, you find out in passing, has inherited the place from a relative who was once a slave, and whose artwork still adorns the attic. Thus established as a haven, the house soon becomes the site of Adrienne’s transformation and liberation.
She’s in need of such extensive renovation because her husband, Jack (Christopher Meloni), has been bad. Specifically, and predictably, he’s been sleeping with someone else and gone so far as to move out, leaving Adrienne with their two kids, resentful teen Amanda (Mae Whitman) and adorable asthmatic Danny (Charlie Tahan). Just as mom’s about to leave. Jack arrives to pick up the children for a trip to Orlando and oh yes, the news that he’s leaving the other woman and wants back in. Still angry and stunned at this bombshell, Adrienne leaves for her weekend on the beach with her head spinning.
To pile on, the Outer Banks is expecting a hurricane. This leaves Adrienne with only a few minutes to take in that great view before she’s boarding up windows and taking in balcony furniture. Because she’s in a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, she’s helped in this work by the sole guest for the weekend, a doctor from the big city named Paul (Richard Gere). Initially resistant to his charms, Adrienne is soon chatting by phone with Jean, who does appear for a couple of long-distance minutes, away at a business convention at bedded by a pretty young man, Stella-style, and encourages her BFF to take advantage of the doctor’s attentions — as a way to get over unreliable Jack, if only for a couple of days.
It’s no coincidence that Paul has his own baggage, based in a professional trauma and expanded to include his estrangement from his son, Mark (James Franco), also a doctor and also traumatized — by years of his father’s neglect. Now running a clinic in Ecuador, Mark appears mainly in flashbacks, bitter and storming out of rooms while Paul looks forlorn. In the present, Paul is soon distracted from his own troubles by Adrienne, who makes her single guest’s dinner and then agrees to talk to him when he pops into the kitchen where she’s preparing the next course. As he steps into the kitchen, he offers a generic approval of Adrienne’s choice of radio station (“Dinah Washington! She’s so great!”), then listens supportively as she starts describing her sad state: “It’s weird not knowing if you’re married tor not,” she says. “It’ okay,” he soothes. “I don’t know where I live… I just came here to talk to somebody.” Of course, he’s come to the right place.
As the storm gathers, the couple shares neatly book-ending details of their recent lives (her father died, he lost a patient and now faces a wrongful death suit). They comfort one another in serial fashion — she has a mini-crisis, then he does — and find the perfect moment to have sex, just as the hurricane reaches a crescendo. Jumpstarted during these few days, their lifelong commitment is then double-sealed through a lengthy period of letter-writing, as they must be separated, each working to repair the damage of their pre-romance lives.
These letters — handwritten and haplessly poetic — provide the movie with repeated images of notepaper and penmanship, as well as the inevitable shots of Adrienne and Paul sneaking off to private spots in order to smile while reading one another’s missives in glowy close-ups. While Paul’s visiting the son in faraway South America, Adrienne keeps herself busy by revisiting her interest in woodcarving, an art she learned from the “local women” in North Carolina. Re-finding herself in this small pleasure and artistic expression, Adrienne is here connected again with Jean’s house and their shared past. It’s a brief, allusive connection, for Jean has already served her narrative purpose. But it’s enough to remind you that Jean, in that alternative universe, does have a story — one that you’d rather be seeing as Adrienne’s descends into mundane melodrama.