Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Watching Nights in Rodanthe a few nights ago with my wife, Denise, made me think. What is the attraction of Nicholas Sparks' stories? There is obviously a gender gap. The same way I bristle at the thought of having to see a Bride Wars (or other so-called "chick flick," which I still diligently invite Denise to on occasion), I quake a little at the thought of having to see a movie based on a Sparks' book. I am a romantic, and love movies with a healthy dose of schmaltz, like Casablanca (1942), or to cite a more recent example, Two Lovers (2009). So I'm speaking to something beyond just the whole "guy thing." I was willing to sample Nights in Rodanthe because it represented the reunion of one of my favorite screen couples, Richard Gere and Diane Lane. I loved them together in The Cotton Club (1984) and Unfaithful (2002). I like them separately, too. Gere is often accused of a certain type of blankness in his performances. While not an incorrect assessment, he seems conscious of this (see the classic performances he's attracted to, and how he misreads the actors' intent in each, next time they run his interview with Elvis Mitchell on TCM), and often works with directors that harness this in such a way that the viewer is able to project a lot onto his "tabula rasa". Lane, on the other hand is a dynamic actress who I've always found fascinating for her slow career transition from ethereal to down-to-earth. She seems even more beautiful today than ever, despite seemingly avoiding some of the surgical enhancements that have strait-jacketed some of her contemporaries (Meg Ryan, Jessica Lange). Here, the two actors do their best to rekindle the natural chemistry they share. But do I need to even tell you the plot? Isn't it as plain as the film's poster and promotional photos? For those interested, Gere and Lane play two divorcees who have a brief affair in Rodanthe, a charming island town located in North Carolina's Outer Banks. The story is so slight and predictable that one starts to expect the moments that jeopardy looms to complicate matters between the two paramours. You've got the nosy best friend, usually played by a good character actress (Doubt's Viola Davis, in this case) to hide the fact that she is simply a sounding board; a means of delivering exposition; or comic relief. Davis fulfills all three roles. Unfortunately, none of these elements elevate the film. I'm at a disadvantage because I haven't read a Sparks book and don't plan to. But I will go out on a limb and guess that part of the attraction to his stories is the regional aspect of his novels. Based in North Carolina, he frequently uses the region as a backdrop in much the same way Stephen King relies on Maine for his novels. The village of Rodanthe is used sparingly to spice up the film. It's a missed opportunity, in my opinion. A strong sense of place frequently translates into the difference between a mediocre film and a good one. Casablanca had that, and so did Two Lovers. While we get a few touches of local flavor with the film's depiction of a crab-bake, and an instance when the town fortifies itself for an approaching hurricane, the town so prominent in the novel's title is given short shrift in Night in Rodanthe. Still provided courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment.