In her classic tome From Reverence to Rape, longtime Village Voice critic Molly Haskell reflects on the deliberate way in which many films of classic Hollywood gave greater contours to the dramatic outlines of our daily lives and emotional experiences, creating a heightened artificiality -- an emotional magnification that many viewers naturally warmed to as a product of self-identification or, more commonly, self-aspiration. In this context, glossy depictions of romantic love naturally took first place by default.
Those observations come to mind while watching Nights in Rodanthe, an unabashedly contrived, but not entirely unsuccessful Hollywood romance from director George C. Wolfe, scripted by John Romano and Ann Peacock, and adapted from the best-seller by Nicholas Sparks. Diane Lane stars as Adrienne Willis, a divorcée-to-be raising her two kids (a soft-spoken, bespectacled little boy, and a rebellious teenage daughter decked out in "alternative" apparel and a tattoo) after her husband committed an injustice and abandoned the family. When her hubby comes waltzing back in on all fours in an attempt to right his wrongdoings and re-embrace the relationship, she hesitates before recommitting to him; before giving him a definitive answer, she heads off to a gorgeous seaside inn at Rodanthe on North Carolina's Cape Hatteras -- having agreed to watch over the property during her friend's (the proprietor's) temporary absence. The only guest during this period happens to be Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere) a handsome but deeply troubled surgeon, still reeling from an operation that resulted in a patient's death on the table. He's arrived in Rodanthe at the bequest of the deceased's elderly widower (Scott Glenn), who wants to make amends with him. He's also grown estranged from his philanthropist son, who's off in Central America providing free medical assist to the natives -- and the heartbroken Paul, who longs to reconcile with his son, plans to fly off to the jungles to make amends with the young man, following his stay in Rodanthe.
One wouldn't be spoiling any surprises to indicate that Adrienne and Paul fall madly, passionately in love, or that the bulk of the film rests entirely on this, with a hurricane practically driving them into each other's arms in the cozy interiors of the B&B as the rain courses against the building outside. The film also functions as a kind of elated women's fantasy that practically every female on the planet can delve into -- not merely finding herself in a picturesque, deserted seaside inn with a physician who looks like Richard Gere over the course of a long weekend, but encountering full emotional validation from the good doctor ("Any man would be foolish who doesn't realize how incredibly lucky he is to have you," Gere rhapsodizes to Lane, with a broken, trembling voice) and finding that she can reach out to her partner and heal wounds in this stallion who possesses a tough exterior but a soft, sensitive, and yielding heart.
So far, so good. It may be an easy film to mock, and it has nothing in the way of genuinely interesting, deep characters, but up until a point, it works satisfactorily. For the first 80 minutes, even if we merely seem to be gazing upon the surfaces from a copy of Architectural Digest crossed with a Spiegel catalogue (not to mention the gorgeous faces and bodies of Lane and Gere) there are admittedly guilty pleasures to be had from this formula, especially for women. More important, one finds oneself first begrudgingly, then flexibly, opening up to the emotional sweep and rapture of this romance. And we accept the tearjerking sorrow when Paul temporarily leaves Adrienne to fly off to Central America and assist his son in the jungles. Soon, the two are shuttling impassioned, erotic letters off to one another, dreaming of their reunion. But not so fast -- the story doesn't end there. It adds just one massive, final twist that at least attempts to turn the film from a moving romance into a heart-rending, devastating tearjerker. And it is here, at the 90-minute mark, that the picture turns into a complete betrayal, a ludicrous, assaultive punch in the jaw to any viewer who dared buy into the manipulation that came before.
One can almost hear the filmmakers rationalizing the ending -- "Hey, in real life, tragedy happens." Sure, of course it does. No one will ever argue with that. The problem with this rationale is that nothing in the prior hour and a half of Nights in Rodanthe remotely indicates that what is happening on the screen was the least bit real; by accepting the artificiality and the contrivance, headlined by these two megastars of the silver screen, we're inherently trusting the scriptwriters with our emotions. Therefore, as soon as the said final twist happens, it feels like a gross betrayal of tone and a mocking insult to everyone who dared believe in the romance.
Some members of the audience will invariably find themselves weeping or sobbing, but many (many) others will find it easier to shut off their hearts and emotions, writing off the film at that point as merely an exploitative, manipulative attempt to jerk the audience around -- and a nasty, sick joke. It's a real shame, because on a slick, glossy, and extremely superficial level, the first 80-90 minutes actually pull the audience in, in spite of the contrivances. Should one write off the entire film because of the wretched ending? That's up to the individual viewer to decide.