by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Nights in Rodanthe, a romantic melodrama and, ironically, our second film in a row that was a soap opera about a doctor whose carefully ordered life goes off the rails when someone dies in his care and he feels responsible. The stars were Richard Gere and Diane Lane, and this film hadn’t particularly interested me when I saw it clogging the racks at the grocery stores, but in one of my madder moments I decided to do a search on the Columbia House Web site for anything Christopher Meloni was in that wasn’t Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and this film came up along with a viral (in the literal infectious-agent sense rather than the computer sense) horror/drama called Carriers and the animated film Green Lantern: First Flight, in which Meloni was the voice of the Earth Green Lantern and was essentially playing his SVU role in a science-fiction superhero context: the member of a law enforcement organization who goes off the rails, gets censured by his superiors but ultimately saves the day.
Nights in Rodanthe is based on a novel by romance specialist Nicholas Sparks and directed by George C. Wolfe (who’s much better known for serious stage work, including the world premiere production of Angels in America, than for a commercial film like this) from a script by Ann Peacock and John Romano. It opens with put-upon housewife Adrienne Willis (Diane Lane), who’s just separated from her husband Jack (Christopher Meloni) after he started an affair with another woman, continued it behind her back for seven months and then announced that he wanted to leave her. As the movie starts she’s rushing her two kids, teenage daughter Amanda (Mae Whitman) — who’s having her adolescent rebellion on steroids; she seems to make it a point of always having loud music blasting away, often on headphones, so she doesn’t have to hear, much less pay attention to, a word her mom says — and pre-pubescent son Danny (Charlie Tahan), off to a visit with their father in Orlando, Florida, while she’s getting ready for a trip of her own to spend time with her African-American friend Jean (Viola Davis) at a bed-and-breakfast Jean owns and runs at Rodanthe on the so-called “Outer Banks” of the North Carolina coastline.
What she doesn’t know is that Jean isn’t going to be there with her — she said she needed to go into town to buy supplies for the inn but she’s really there to date a really hot-looking Black guy with a West Indian accent (we only glimpse him in one scene but his chest is shirtless and he is hot!) — but that, even though it’s winter and there’s a major risk of a storm, there’s a paying guest at the place. The guest is Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere, still a nice-looking man but definitely one who hasn’t weathered the years well), who’s there because he’s at a low ebb in his career: not only is he estranged from his son Mark (an uncredited James Franco), also a doctor, who’s left the U.S. to run a free clinic in Ecuador, but a patient of his, Jill Torrelson (Linda Molloy), died on his operating table during a routine removal of a facial cyst (it was the fourth of five operations this frantic assembly-line surgeon was supposed to perform that day). Dr. Flanner is in Rodanthe to contact Jill’s surviving relatives, her husband Robert (Scott Glenn) and their son Charlie (Pablo Schreiber), to see if he can talk them out of the multi-million dollar wrongful-death lawsuit they’ve already filed against him.
After a few nice scenes in which Dr. Flanner and Adrienne dance around each other, she makes him dinner (that is part of what he’s paying for!), they listen to what’s supposed to be the local radio station (a paradise of cool that plays things like the Count Basie-Lester Young classic “Jive at Five,” Dinah Washington’s version of “Backwater Blues” and Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” — where do I find a station this hip?) as well as a record on Jean’s LP player (the Washington/Brook Benton duet “A Rockin’ Good Way”), and finally end up literally blown into each other’s arms by a major storm that rolls in and puts the power out. They end up in the same bed and the next morning, once cell phone service is restored to the area, Adrienne gets a call from her estranged husband Jack telling her that their son Danny had an asthma attack during the night and is in hospital because Jack didn’t wake him up during the night to run his inhaler. (So this is yet another one in that odd series of movies in which something bad has to happen to one of the heroine’s children so she can get laid.)
Despite the likely opposition of Adrienne’s kids, both of whom are rooting for mom and dad to get back together, she and Paul plan to stay together as soon as he returns from a trip to Ecuador to help his son Mark with the clinic — only [spoiler alert!] Paul never returns: on the last night a storm destroys the clinic and the building collapses on Paul, who’d gone back in to salvage some medical supplies, and Mark turns up on Adrienne’s doorstep and gives her the bad news, telling her that even though Paul is dead, Mark is glad Adrienne and his dad knew each other because their affair redeemed him and turned him from an egomaniac into a human being. The film ends on the beach at Rodanthe, where Adrienne sees a herd of wild horses that she and Paul had talked about during their idyll — which I guess is supposed to indicate that even though he’s dead he’s sent her a message from beyond the grave.
Weighted down with implausible situations and maddeningly arbitrary plot twists, as well as surprisingly little screen time for Richard Gere (he doesn’t enter until this 97-minute movie is already 15 minutes old, and he exits for good — except for a flashback scene, narrated by Mark, explaining how he died — at the two-thirds mark), Nights in Rodanthe is actually a quite haunting movie. The writers and director Wolfe are willing to create characters that we not only identify with and want to see get their hearts’ desires but feel for emotionally. There are lots of nice little touches, like the frantically played Bach piece on piano that introduces the flashback showing Dr. Flanner’s lethal operation (the music is explained when as he’s going into the operating room, someone asks him if he wants to hear Miles Davis, and he says, “No — Bach today!,” establishing the flippancy with which he treats his profession that his biggest concern when he’s about to do an operation is that he hear the “right” music as he works) and the way storms are used both to bring the hero and heroine together and to separate them permanently (the sort of “good construction” screenwriters of the 1930’s and 1940’s were supposed to have an instinct for, but modern-day movie writers almost can’t be bothered with), even though there are little annoyances along the way, like the inability of the actors to agree on a common pronunciation for the name “Rodanthe.” The “Frequently Asked Questions” section on the imdb.com Web page for the film gives the proper pronunciation as “Row-DAN’-thee” but often the actors alternate between that and “Row-DAHN-tee.”
It’s a well-acted movie (though Meloni, my hero, is wasted as the boor of a husband — ironically he was shooting this film around the same time as the Law and Order: SVU writers were giving him a story arc featuring a separation and eventual reconciliation with his wife, but his character here is all the boorish aspects of Elliot Stabler and none of his compensating nobility; in fact we don’t even find out what Jack Willis does for a living, though it’s well-paid enough that he can afford quite an elaborate home for himself and his family and his wife doesn’t, or at least seemingly doesn’t, have to work — it is established that she was an aspiring artist when they married, as was her friend Jean, but she gave it up when she married Jack and only takes it up again at the end) and Diane Lane looks exactly as she should, suffering the crow’s feet and other indicia of age but still a good-looking and plausibly attractive woman. It’s also a movie that leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next — it occurred to me that had this basic story been made in the 1930’s her character would have returned to her husband at the end, having grown from the experience but also won a renewed determination to make her marriage work (indeed, the idea that a married — though separated — woman would have an affair and then the man would die is classic “redemption through suffering” as preached by the old Production Code!), and I’m still not sure that that wouldn’t be the best outcome (or the one I would have picked if I were writing this!), and watching this movie right after By Appointment Only I was surprised that the modern movie would be deeper and emotionally richer than the old one with a similar story line. Well, I guess it had to happen sometime …