Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nights in Rodanthe: Contrived nonsense

Nights in Rodanthe (2008) • View trailer for Nights in Rodanthe
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite needlessly, for mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.25.08
Buy DVD: Nights in Rodanthe • Buy Blu-Ray: Nights in Rodanthe (+ BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

Full disclosure time:

I'm a hard-core romantic and a sucker for sweet little love stories; were it not for light-hearted caper thrillers — absolutely my favorite genre — starry-eyed melodramas would occupy the No. 1 spot.
Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere), having traveled to North Carolina's Outer
Banks during the off-season, for a supremely uncomfortable personal errand,
doesn't wish to eat alone at the inn managed by Adrienne Willis (Diane Lane);
he therefore brings his dinner into the kitchen and joins her. It's a cute, gently
flirtatious scene; sadly, the rest of the film can't match its charm.

And I'm absolutely equal-opportunity; I don't care whether the equation's two halves are a guy and a gal, two members of the same gender, mismatched robots or cowboy string-dolls named Woody and Jessie. As long as they fall into each other's arms as the final act concludes — or we know they will — I'm a happy camper.

Shirley MacLaine's sidelong demand that Jack Lemmon "Shut up and deal," at the end of 1960's The Apartment, is one of the greatest — and most romantic — closing lines ever written for a film.

I mention all this by way of demonstrating that I am, quite clearly, part of the target audience for director George C. Wolfe's adaptation of Nights in Rodanthe, scripted by Ann Peacock and John Romano, and based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks.

But despite my genre willingness, this flick did nothing for me.

Sparks, frequently courted by Hollywood, has a tendency to ladle his melodrama with a trowel; the films adapted from his overly contrived novels often suffer from the same disease.

Sparks' characters don't just suffer; they endure the overwhelming mental anguish of the damned.

It might work on the printed page, but selling such purple melodrama on the big screen depends on the acting talent involved.

Kevin Costner spent all of 1998's dreary and laughably improbable Message in a Bottle looking for character motivation.

2002's A Walk to Remember — despite the sympathetic treatment of its religious protagonist — was little more than a hiccup in Mandy Moore's slow rise up Hollywood's ladder of fame.

The Notebook, depending on your tolerance for such stuff, was either too maudlin for words or too sad to endure, although it certainly boasted a strong cast.

Which brings us to Nights in Rodanthe, which gets some of its notoriety for once again re-uniting stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane, who struck reasonably tragic sparks in Unfaithful, and first worked together all the way back in The Cotton Club.

Lane can act — quite well, in fact — and she pulls off this story's tougher scenes.

Gere cannot, and does not.

Gere's entire thespic repertoire is his uncertain half-smile; granted, it's a great half-smile, but it's intended to cover far too much emotional territory here. His character, Paul, is introduced as self-absorbed and cut off from his own feelings: clever type-casting, I would argue.

But as the narrative progresses, Paul is supposed to open up ... and Gere can't pull it off. He's still stiff as a board, which pretty much describes the actor's entire career. (Why he keeps getting work remains a mystery.)

Lane plays Adrienne Willis, a woman in the uncertain second act of what could become a divorce, although her philandering husband (Christopher Meloni) wants to be forgiven. He plays dirty, involving the feelings of their children: teenage Amanda (Mae Whitman, a familiar face from countless guest appearances in TV dramas) and young Danny (Charlie Tahan).

Needing time to think, Adrienne flees to Rodanthe, a remote spot along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, to temporarily look after a coastal inn owned by her best friend, Jean (Viola Davis, a striking presence seen too briefly here).

It's off-season, and Jean is expecting only one guest for the weekend.

That would be Dr. Paul Flanner (Gere), an eminent surgeon who long ago sacrificed his family to his career, and has made this trip to Rodanthe to meet with Robert Torrelson, the distraught husband (Scott Glenn) of a woman who died unexpectedly during a routine cosmetic operation.

Adrienne and Paul, both damaged goods, are alone in the massive inn for the weekend. They reach out; they bond; they fall in love. It's that kind of story.

Wolfe orchestrates the flirtatious overtures reasonably well; Lane and Gere are cute during such moments. But it's not all walks on the beach and late-night glasses of wine; Adrienne and Paul also jab at each other's tender spots, leading to tin-eared arguments that don't sound the least bit convincing.

That's the major problem with this film. It's laden with tense, thoughtful and intimate exchanges of dialogue; some work, while many don't. Glenn is magnificent, when Torrelson finally gets what he wants from this big-city doctor with his big-city attitude; this quiet confrontation is by far the film's strongest scene.

Lane and Whitman share a similarly powerful moment, much later, as the rebellious Amanda finally begins to perceive her mother as a human being with her own needs, fears and insecurities.

James Franco, on the other hand, is just as wooden as Mark, Paul's estranged son (also a doctor). Thankfully, Gere and Franco don't have too many scenes together, because each is a case of the bland leading the bland. Worse yet, though, is the first crucial meeting between Mark and Adrienne: what should be the story's emotional climax, which falls flat because of Franco's dreadful line readings.

Factor in some of the aforementioned clumsy exchanges between Lane and Gere — the latter so unpersuasive when he loses his temper — and the result can't help being unsatisfying.

And all the more so when we're confronted with the typical Sparks gotcha! in the third act. God forbid any of these characters should be allowed to remain happy, and this much is certain: A story laced with this much melancholy better be directed with panache and performed with conviction.

I'm talking The English Patient and Atonement, folks; anything less, and we just get annoyed by the blatantly manipulative way the movie toys with our emotions.

Wolfe, making his big-screen directorial debut, hasn't near the chops for this material; he also hasn't the skill to elicit better performances from weak actors (notably Gere and Franco). Wolfe brings nothing to this party; the degree to which this material succeeds is due entirely to the emotional power that Lane, Glenn and Whitman contribute themselves.

And while we're on the subject of unbelievable...

Jean's inn, supposedly having been in her family for generations, is — no question — an incredibly romantic setting. It's also the most impractical setting for a big house that I've ever seen; it's not just on the water, it's in the water. This might be acceptable somewhere on, say, the California or Oregon coast, but in North Carolina, along hurricane alley?


When Jean, taking note of a possible hurricane strike during the weekend she's gone, insists that the place has survived countless hurricanes in the past, we can't help scoffing with disbelief, particularly these days. We watch the news; we know what hurricanes do.

(Rest assured, by the way: This tale's impending hurricane will arrive.)

Storytelling always relies on an unspoken contract between author and audience: the willing suspension of disbelief by the latter, in exchange for reasonably credible work by the former.

Sparks may have sold all this contrivance as a book, but Wolfe and his cast don't come close to making it work as a movie. Ergo, the contract is broken, and we don't buy it.

Not even when Lane works her expressive features to the core.

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