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A weepie gone wrong

The only reason to see Nights in Rodanthe is to check in with Diane Lane. Rarely have movie fans had a chance to grow up with a star the way they have with Lane, from her youthful heartbreaker days in films like Streets of Fire (1984) to her mature vibrancy in Unfaithful (2002). If you've followed her career, you bring an affectionate familiarity to her movies that make them watchable even when they stink.

Neither a femme fatale nor a girl next door, Lane has always had an intense prettiness and the confidence to let her passions crack it open. She's a master of the middle range of feelings, including middle-class regret and longing. Navigating the secret corners of conventional living is her specialty. Nights in Rodanthe is just her latest and, alas, least, opportunity to practice it.

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Adapted from yet another best-seller by Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook) about amorous healing, Nights at Rodanthe takes place mostly in a North Carolina coastal town where Lane's Adrienne Willis has gone to play hotelier for a friend who's out of town. Her one customer is an attractive plastic surgeon, Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere). A mother of two, Adrienne is estranged from her husband (Christopher Meloni), who has suddenly declared he wants her back. Paul, divorced long ago, hopes to meet face to face with the widower of a woman who died in a freak accident on his operating table. Setups like this always remind me of The Far Side cartoon that put a dingo farm next to a nursery with the caption "Trouble Brewing." And did I say there's a hurricane on the horizon?

Director George C. Wolfe and screenwriters Ann Peacock and John Romano adjust the material for their stars but streak it with their own brand of fake wisdom and treacle. Adrienne is now an artist who gave up her ambitions when she became a wife and mother. Paul is a professional's professional, and that's his flaw; he staked his identity on being the best doctor he could be rather than a decent husband or father. After taking care of this troublesome past business, he aims to reconnect with his idealistic doctor son (James Franco) and join him as a missionary medic in Ecuador.

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It's very neat, and I don't mean that as a compliment. He gets to teach her to make hard decisions and hold to them; she gets him to share the pain of his patients and their families. Together, they have great soul-mate sex knowing he'll be going away for months to restore his bond with his son. Put it all inside a picturesque, woody bed and breakfast that's like a cross between a multileveled carousel and a sandcastle, and you have what the filmmakers obviously thought was a surefire weepie. I'm surprised they didn't pack free tickets inside tissue boxes.

Except it's so thin and overcalculated that it doesn't work. It's fun to see Lane navigate Adrienne's shifts in feeling like an emotional quick-change artist. At her high point, she learns that her husband has been using their children to manipulate her into a reconciliation. She expresses outrage and bitterness, then puts on a favorite record and bumps and grooves her hurt away.

Not even Lane, though, can push this soggy mass uphill. Sure, Gere is apt casting for a man who hides his vulnerability beneath his silver-fox surface. (He appeared with Lane in 1984's The Cotton Club as well as Unfaithful.) But he can't conjure any fresh expressions of guilt-streaked callousness and emergent decency.

Scott Glenn imbues the aggrieved widower with a gnarly decency, but director Wolfe doesn't know how to tap this actor's wells of mournful or sardonic humor. In general, Wolfe ladles on the local color. Underneath it, all you get is white bread.

Nights in Rodanthe

(Warner Bros.) Starring Diane Lane, Richard Gere, James Franco, Scott Glenn. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Rated PG-13 for some sexuality. Time 97 minutes.


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