The celebrated theater director and playwright George C. Wolfe has spearheaded some dazzlingly cinematic works for the stage, including the musicals "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" -- fluid, provocative, terrific shows. Now in his feature film directorial debut, Wolfe has brought in 'da hunk of cheese known as "Nights in Rodanthe." And the comparative savvy Wolfe showed in HBO's stage-to-TV transfer of "Lackawanna Blues" has gone missing.
To be fair, the material is something that got spritzed out of a can all over the paperback bestseller lists. The feather-light romance by novelist Nicholas Sparks ("Message in a Bottle," "The Notebook"), adapted by Ann Peacock and John Romano, is designed to attract good-looking film actors of a certain age. All the better if they can act! Or even interact. Diane Lane can, and does. Richard Gere -- sometimes. As skillful and charismatic as Gere is, I never get the sense he's really in there, conversing with his fellow actor. He seems most at home when he can revert to nonverbal, emotionally wounded reaction shots: hurt look, followed by glance away, followed by lip quiver, or defensive, squinty smile.
Lane, like Gere and every other actor on the planet, has her own habits to guard against. She does a lot -- too much, sometimes -- from the neck up. But in the last few years, especially since "Unfaithful," which also costarred Gere, she has grown into a formidable presence, sensual, complicated but not vampy. Way back in "The Cotton Club," she and Gere were stuck playing arch jazz babies, and they couldn't seem to fill out their roles in an easy way. In "Nights in Rodanthe," at least, they do.
The plot? Recently separated Adrienne (Lane) leaves her kids with her ex and heads to the scenic coastal burg of Rodanthe, N.C., where her pal (Viola Davis) owns the most picturesque inn with the most beautiful blue shutters you can imagine. Adrienne is there alone, to think and to prepare the inn for an incoming nor'easter. But the sole scheduled visitor arrives: Dr. Paul Flanner (Gere), who recently lost a patient during a routine operation and has come to Rodanthe to make amends with the dead woman's grieving widower (Scott Glenn).
Love blooms for Adrienne and Paul, while the hurricane brews, and the story eventually settles into a series of passionate letters to and from our grateful lovers. Few writers alive are more devoted to epistolary porn -- emotional porn, that is; nothing too sexual on this stretch of beach -- than Sparks. And this sort of thing can work: "The Notebook" certainly found its audience on screen. And look at "The Bridges of Madison County." Worst book ever written, and the film basically ignored it altogether, and it turned out amazingly well.
Wolfe has brought some of his best theatrical colleagues to this project, including Davis and composer Jeanine Tesori (who wrote the music for "Caroline, or Change," which Wolfe directed in New York). But after a while, all the voice-overs tend to sound like, "Was it the storm? The wine? The way you looked at me?" And the editing by Brian A. Kates is exceedingly jumpy, as if determined to get through each exchange as quickly as possible.
"Nights in Rodanthe." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sensuality. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. In general release.