14 April 2012
Nights in Rodanthe, then, is just absolutely nuts about not working. It opens with a flashback to 1999 that pulls back to 2002, from which vantage point the main character tells a story set in 1988, which serves to comment on the situation facing her family in 2002, though since the 1988 frame is absolutely the only part we care about, it's sort of a weird situation where the meant and potatoes of the novel is a metaphor for a conflict that we only really hear about secondhand and don't care about even though Sparks makes us sit through 30 pages wrapping it-up. And the whole megillah is all in service to such a damn retread of Message in a Bottle, that the desperation with which Sparks moves through his entirely unnecessary plot convolutions end up being even more obnoxious than they were when it just seemed like shoddy structure - though I bet that Nicholas Sparks fandom is light on committed structuralists.
All of which is to say that Nights in Rodanthe, the 2008 movie based on the book (a return to Sparks's lucky charm producer, Denise Di Novi; incidentally, the six-year gap between the two makes it the tardiest of all Sparks adaptations extant as of this writing), is actually something of a pleasure to watch, because it fixes very nearly all of what is bad with the source material - the vast majority of which work was done via the simple but exquisitely wise decision to set the story in 2008, flashing back to other bits of 2008 (actually, the whole span from earliest to latest moment is at in the 18-24 month range, but it's so much more wieldy than the out-of-control flashbackgasm of the book that it hardly counts). Because, when the whole entire point of a story is to tell us that two people fell in love over a four-day span, there's really not much outside of that four-day span that we really need to see, nor especially want to. Except for the tragic part that keeps them forever separated, of course. It's a Sparks movie. If there wasn't a tragic part, we'd feel ill-used.
Anyway, Nights in Rodanthe might end up being the most successful of all Sparks adaptions, though "successful" means a very specific thing here. It's not the best - The Notebook has that one all sewed up just from its cast - but I suppose that is the most quintessential and complete in and of itself as a Nicholas Sparks joint, and that's partially because it exactly lacks the powerhouse acting of a Ryan Gosling or a Gena Rowlands, the admirable star-in-training presence of a Rachel McAdams, or the geniality of a James Garner. This film has to make do with Diane Lane and Richard Gere, both of whom are decent but rarely exceptional performers, but who are exactly right for this kind of story - while the acting in The Notebook imbalances it fiercely, the acting in Nights in Rodanthe makes it exactly itself. There may be no significant American actress better-suited to play the the author's beloved figure of a world-weary middle-aged woman with a quiet desire to love and be loved, to lust and be lusted after, than Lane; there is surely no significant American actor better-suited to play this particular love interest, a snappish, self-involved, guilt-ridden surgeon, than Gere. They are middle-of-the-road performers giving middle-of-the-road performances of middle-of-the-road material, and somehow all that thick mediocrity coalesces into a thunderstorm of the most lacerating, piercing averageness, so nondescript that its anonymity becomes its very personality. Nights in Rodanthe is like vanilla ice cream that tastes, not the most like vanilla itself, but the most like vanilla ice cream.
And, at the very least, it gives the leads a much better chance to spark their absolutely unsurprising but completely genre-satisfying chemistry than their previous teaming, Unfaithful, which I watched as homework for this review, and found to be objectionable and tedious and even vile in ways that not one of these Sparks movies have yet been, so that is a little ray of sunshine, I guess. I didn't watch The Cotton Club, since when it came out, Lane wasn't Lane yet, and Gere was only just barely Gere, so it didn't seem to count.
Nights in Rodanthe takes place in Rodanthe, which is an island community in North Carolina, and whose name is pronounced "Ro-DAN-thee" (unvoiced "th"), though Emmylou Harris, in the end credits song "In Rodanthe", persists in saying "R'-DAN-tee", and hell, she's a Southerner, so maybe she knows what's what. Regardless, the reason that there are nights spent in Rodanthe is that Adrienne Willis (Lane) needs some time away from her kids, sullen bitchy teenager Amanda (Mae Whitman) and energetic, neurotic young Danny (Charlie Tahan), and especially and above all, from her husband Jack (Christopher Meloni), from whom she has been separated for several months since he cheated on her; of late he has been making overtures of reconciliation, and it's putting her in a right state. So, in an act of kind pragmatism, her dear childhood friend Jean (Viola Davis) has asked her to spend the weekend taking care of Jean's old bed and breakfast while she is on a business trip to Miami. In the meantime, legendary plastic surgeon Dr. Paul Flemmer (Gere) is in town on a Secret Quest. Do you mind if I give it away? I don't care. He was cutting a cyst off a woman's face some time back, and she was that one rare patient who just straight-up didn't make it without anything going wrong, and now her husband, Robert (Scott Glenn), wants to meet with Paul and have it out with him. When I was reading the book, there was a particular line that made me call well in advance that the tragic ending would be when a grief-stricken Robert shoots Paul, and Adrienne cradles Paul in her arms as he bleeds out his life. I was so fucking far wrong that I don't even know why I was able to be so wrong, especially because in retrospect, it's not a very Nicholas Sparks ending.
Right, yeah, so Adrienne and Paul meet, and he's prickly but handsome, and she tries her best to be a good hostess but she s turned off by his standoffishness and refusal to take sack up and talk to the widowed husband, or express any feelings of frailty and pain over having driven his son, Mark (James Franco), all the way to Ecuador just to get the hell away from his emotionally absent father. Later they do Jack Daniels shots and make out after mocking Jean's kitchen; then they fuck during a hurricane.
It's sort of terrible, but magical at the same time. The overriding sense I have of Nights in Rodanthe is that it's a broad, absurdly trite movie made by hugely shameless people - TV director George C. Wolfe and TV writer John Romano and writer Ann Peacock, who has no TV experience, I am sad to say, all going a bit nuts in the face of the scope that anamorphic 35mm and a movie budget with movie stars can give them - and that it is precisely the movie that they all intended to make from the outset, not like Message in a Bottle, which seems to have drifted off course rather badly without anybody knowing how to fix it, or A Walk to Remember, which never seems to have had a clear direction to begin with. It's obvious as all hell, and criminally over-emphasis the Romance of the Beach and Sea in its visuals, starting with a torrid helicopter shot of the bed and breakfast - prior to this, I did not know that a helicopter shot can even be torrid - that renders the structure with such overblown lustiness that I was 100% sure it was a set, and a particularly fake-looking set at that. Turns out that it was a real rental property named Serendipity, which has since been moved on account of it being about to fall into the sea. That, God bless it, is how committed Nights in Rodanthe is to evoking the chintzy but urgent melodramatic flourishes of Sparks's writing: it manages to make an actual real-life structure look like a tacky embellishment of something that was overheated to begin with.
The fact is, dear reader, I don't know if I loved this movie or not - I did not, for certain, like it. I may have hated it. But there's something about it that is so hopelessly sincere, so totally unconcerned with how stupid it all is, for every moment, and how banal the characters and the actors playing them are in every emotional beat, that it's weirdly stimulating. Maybe it's just too plain to feel anything about it at all, and I am confusing boredom from ambivalence. But at least Scott Glenn gets to chomp on passionately melodramatic dialogue like it's beef jerky, so it has that going for it.