Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Like a Hurricane (It Blows)

Wind in the Wallows: Nights in Rodanthe

Never do I admire the craft of acting more than when I see good actors giving everything they’ve got to make bad material work. It must take uncommon dedication to resist shredding the script into bitty pieces and stomping upon them screaming, “This is bullshit!”

In the case of Nights in Rodanthe, the hard-working actors are Diane Lane and Richard Gere, and the sow’s ear is a screenplay based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, an author known for a string of terrible — which is to say insanely popular — romantic novels

Sparks’ first manuscript, The Notebook, was plucked off the slush pile to net him a $1 million advance and propel him into the bestseller stratosphere. The book, later made into a weepy movie, launched a lucrative industry of Sparks novels aimed at sentimental women. The novels — Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, also filmed — feature heart-tugging variations on a basic Love Story plot, often told in flashback: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy or girl dies. Woven throughout the sappy prose are ideas about Christianity and fate. Sparks has found a winning formula, and it has made him very, very wealthy.

Does it matter that no one in the galaxy talks the way the author’s characters do? Of course not, because Sparks’ writing caters to a persistent romantic fantasy. His readers long for their men, who are likely to be found slouching in Barcaloungers, to spout poetry and say things like, “I know you’re hurting.”

Nights in Rodanthe tells the story of Adrienne (Lane), a middle-aged mother of two whose husband left her for another woman but now wants to return. Adrienne decides to think it over during a trip to look after a beachfront inn in North Carolina’s Outer Banks owned by her friend, lively African-American artist Jean (Viola Davis). Her children, meanwhile, are brattily pestering her to give Dad another chance.

The only guest at the inn that weekend is Paul Flanner (Gere), a wealthy dreamboat doctor with a troubled past. Having just left his marriage and sold his house, Paul has come to coastal Rodanthe to talk to an old man named Torrelson (Scott Glenn), who is suing Paul over the death of his wife on his operating table.

Paul continues on his path of redemption by joining his noble doctor son working in a clinic in Ecuador. It isn’t clear why Paul needs absolution, since the patient’s death wasn’t his fault, but according to the Sparks ethos, it’s because he didn’t care enough. “What color were her eyes?” the grieving Torrelson demands, as if any doctor would remember such a detail.

While in Ecuador, Paul writes long, romantic letters (letters -- how quaint!) to Adrienne every day, promising her a beautiful future with him. If you are familiar with Sparks’ books, you know that this blissful reunion can never be, but far be it from me to spoil the surprise as to which character joins the Choir Invisible.

Sparks’ novel tells its drippy tale in flashback, but screenwriters Ann Peacock and Joe Romano have set the story in the present, making it even less interesting, if that’s possible. What’s remarkable about the movie is the gulf between the skill of cast and crew and the banality of the material. It is the screen debut of the esteemed African-American theater director George C. Wolfe, who seems to have tried to make something lovely of the story, gracing it with a nicely windswept atmosphere, fine vintage music (Count Basie, Dinah Washington) and a grandiose hurricane scene that looks like something from a monster movie. But, like that precariously perched inn on sticks, these efforts are inadequate to defend against the gale-force winds of Sparks schmaltz.

Originally published in the Cleveland Scene. Visit them here.

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