Friday, November 14, 2008

Nights in Rodanthe

Movies like Nights in Rodanthe are beyond reviewing, because intellectually analyzing them cancels out their intended effect. This is a weepie, pure and simple. If you're the type that likes crying at the movies, you'll love it. If you loved Richard Gere and Diane Lane together in a thriller like Unfaithful (2002) but you don't like to cry, you probably won't like it. Me, I found a few things to like and much to loathe.

Diane Lane stars in Nights in Rodanthe as Adrienne Willis, a frazzled single mother with a young son and a teenage daughter; the latter has just begun talking back and expressing her universal disdain for everything her mother does. Adrienne's no-good husband (Christopher Meloni), who, we learn, has had an affair, arrives to pick up the kids so that Adrienne can go help her happy-go-lucky pal Jean (Viola Davis, playing a typical movie "best friend") look after a sexy, beach-side North Carolina hotel during its off-season. Unfortunately, the husband now wants to get back together.

Confused Adrienne arrives at the hotel, which is decorated head-to-foot in all kinds of colored, tinkly bric-a-brac and prepares for its one and only guest. Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere) is a doctor struggling with a dark secret, and who has arrived for an equally mysterious errand. The attractive duo eventually warm up to one another and talk, but their dark secrets get in the way. Meanwhile, a huge storm threatens to blow away everything that isn't nailed down. I guess it's not too hard to guess what happens next. (Trivia hounds: this is Gere and Lane's third movie together. Besides Unfaithful, they were in Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club together way back in 1984.)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the new movie is how rare this genre is these days. Lately, weepies come attached to some important message so that the picture can rise up to earn accolades and Oscar nominations; they're set during a war, or have something to do with disease (think Atonement or Love in the Time of Cholera). Nights in Rodanthe doesn't require any such pretense. It's about a man and a woman who fall in love, and because we're talking Nicholas Sparks, we're talking tragic results rather than happy ones. And that's it.

Because Nights in Rodanthe is such a pure weepie, it made me recall an influential study done by film scholar Linda Williams, who helped define the "body genres." She named porno, horror films and weepies as the three main genres that elicit physical reactions from audiences. I never agreed with her on the weepie categorization until now. This is exactly the type of movie she was talking about. Like a porno film or a horror film, it has one goal and only one goal. If it affects you intellectually, then it has failed. If it doesn't jerk your tears, then it has failed.

Diane Lane goes a long way toward making the film work. She's perfectly at home inside this material (as she usually is in any material, bless her), and her emotional openness and ease carry us through some of the clunkier passages. However, rookie director George C. Wolfe, who comes from television, fails to direct Gere with the same touch; Gere seems to overshoot his lines, always aiming too high, as if unsure of his character's responses. This split continues across the film; the music selection is good (Dinah Washington!) and the set design seems right, but the tone, the editing and the pacing fall far short of their potential. One scene at a town fish-fry earned unintentional laughs from the audience at my screening.

Then there's the story by Nicholas Sparks, which is what it is. It's pure hokum, totally ridiculous, but the trick is to treat it as if it weren't. And because Wolfe fails half the time, the story begins to show through, more and more frequently calling attention to itself. The greatest weepies ever made are the ones by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, etc.). Sirk was an artist, and he could shape and design an absolutely brilliant scene around the most hysterical plot; his films almost play more like films noir than weepies. I don't feel ashamed watching them. But perhaps that's the key. As with horror films and porno films, much of the joy of weepies comes from the stupid, guilty pleasure we feel at having been so crassly manipulated.

Which leads me to the major problem of Nights in Rodanthe: the fact that Gere is in his fifties and Lane is in her forties. It's much harder to fool audiences in that age group; they've seen more movies and know more tricks. Younger audiences have greedily indulged in the previous two Sparks films The Notebook (2004) and A Walk to Remember (2002), mainly because they were based on characters in their teens and twenties and the stories probably seemed new. The first Sparks film, Message in a Bottle (1999), was also based on the older generation, and it failed. Nights in Rodanthe exists in a similar void. Younger viewers are not going to want to see an icky romance about (eww!) people their parents' age, while older viewers are going to want to stay home and rent Atonement.

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