Nights in Rodanthe (2008) review-vicarious vacation viewing

Producing a worthy follow-up to a hit movie is always an unenviable task, even in the world of Nicholas Sparks book-to-film adaptations.

However, George Wolfe was saddled with this very responsibility when he was hired to direct Nights in Rodanthe (2008) a few years after the release of The Notebook (2004).

Even though it received a mixed critical reception, The Notebook proved to be a sleeper hit at the box office and would go on to gain a massive cult following, thanks in part to its period setting, attractive cast and unapologetic sentimentality. 

In fact, critics have given The Notebook a serious re-evaluation over the last decade, with some publications now considering it to be one of the best chick-flicks of all time.

However, no such accolades have been given out to Nights in Rodanthe, which was met with an overall shrug from critics and audiences at the time of its release and has mostly been forgotten outside of the most passionate Sparks supporters.

And while it’s easy to see why this film faded into obscurity, Nights in Rodanthe at least offers enough nice scenery and atmosphere to justify a Sunday-afternoon viewing, even if the central romance doesn’t really work.

The plot of Nights in Rodanthe revolves around single mom Adrienne (Diane Lane), who is struggling with whether or not she should let her estranged husband back into her life after he cheated on her.

While Adrienne is mulling this question over, she’s charged with overseeing her best friend’s bed-and-breakfast for the weekend, even if the seaside hotel only has a single guest checking in.

This one guest turns out to be handsome doctor Paul (Richard Gere), who is attracted to Adrienne despite the fact that he is dealing with some intense personal shit in his own life.

Even though I already provided a preamble on The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe is actually much more comparable to Message in a Bottle (1999)—another Sparks novel adaptation where the central romance is the least interesting part of the movie.

In this case, Diane Lane really does all the heavy lifting, since her protagonist exudes a tremendous amount of flustered charm that is sure to connect with a lot of single moms out there.

After all, these women often get shuffled off to the sidelines in a lot of mainstream Hollywood movies, where their role in the overarching story is relegated to giving out sage advice while exercising no real agency of their own.  

So it’s refreshing to see an older woman’s story take centre stage in a big movie like this, and Lane does an excellent job of articulating a lot of the challenges of being a single mom without turning into a gross caricature.

This is best exemplified in Adrienne’s relationship with her teenage daughter (played by Mae Whitman), since the pair have a combative dynamic at the start but gradually develop more empathy for each other as the plot moves forward.

Unfortunately, Richard Gere’s character isn’t nearly as engaging, since he spends the majority of the movie brooding and looking constipated.

And this kind of mopey attitude bleeds into his on-screen relationship with Lane as well, since the two actors don’t have a lot of chemistry while their two characters have little in common beyond the fact that they are both attractive, single and have kids.

Because of this, the pair’s romance never feels like anything beyond a brief weekend fling, even though the screenwriters pretend like they are crafting some once-in-a-lifetime love that can never be replicated.

However, the real star of Nights in Rodanthe isn’t any individual member of the cast.

Instead, the most captivating presence on screen belongs to the Rodanthe Inn itself and the beautiful North Carolina beach-front property that surrounds it.

Admittedly, all the Nicholas Sparks films I’ve seen up until now have flexed some impressive cinematography. But this is the first time all that energy and skill has been funneled into making one specific location look appealing.

And director of photography Affonso Beato gives the audience a pretty breathtaking intro into this sea-side hotel, providing a panoramic view of the building that begins on the inside of Gere’s car and ends at the check-in counter.

Even though the interior of the hotel was built in a studio, the production crew did an excellent job of making it look like a place you would want to spend your vacation, with plenty of calming colours, eccentric wallpaper, and natural lighting on display.

In fact, this production design was so influential that the real-life owners of this hotel decided to completely renovate their interiors following the film’s release to more closely resemble what was on screen.

And like I mentioned before, this kind of beautiful imagery follows Lane and Gere whenever they leave the hotel to take a scenic stroll on the beach or enjoy a dockside cook out in a nearby town.

Unfortunately, all the postcard scenery in the world can’t compensate for a weak central romance, especially since that’s the main reason why most people pay money to watch these Sparks adaptations in the first place.

But I still think there is something to be said for the laid-back atmosphere that Wolfe and his team created for this film, not just through some expert cinematography but a well-crafted, ambient score as well.

After all, sometimes you just want to sit back and relax by watching a movie like Nights in Rodanthe, where the stakes are low and most of the conflict is strictly internal.

While this slice-of-life drama has been done way better by directors like Richard Linklater, Greta Gerwig, and Hayao Miyazaki, Wolfe works with the material he’s given and still manages to overcome some of the film’s narrative shortcomings through his keen cinematic eye.

Couple that together with Lane’s endearing lead performance and Nights in Rodanthe becomes the movie equivalent of taking a relaxing vacation with a very charming tour guide.

And after the last year-and-a-half, I think we could all use a nice vacation, even if you’re not ready to get off the living room couch just yet.

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Quaker Crispy Minis (because it’s the kind of snack you can equally enjoy laying on the beach or sitting on the couch)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Sept. 26, 2008

-Budget: $30 million (estimated)

-Box office: $84.4 million (worldwide)

Nights in Rodanthe was shot in several locations across North Carolina, including the Village of Rodanthe itself.

-Shortly after filming on Nights in Rodanthe was completed, the hotel featured in the movie (called “Serendipity” at the time) was condemned due to an insufficient foundation. The building was eventually bought by a new set of owners, moved to a more secure location nearby and renamed “The Inn at Rodanthe.” It remains open to this day

Nights in Rodanthe marks the third screen collaboration between Richard Gere and Diane Lane after The Cotton Club (1984) and Unfaithful (2002).

-While director George Wolfe’s film work has been sporadic throughout the 2010s, he came back with a vengeance in 2020 by helming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  The film (based on a play by August Wilson) went on to win two Oscars for costume design and makeup/hairstyling and bagged another three nominations (including a posthumous nod for Chadwick Boseman).

-Musical highlight: “In Rodanthe” by Emmylou Harris (plays over the end credits)

Moscow on the Hudson (1984) review-A warm hug in politically divisive times

Most people my age got introduced to Robin Williams’ real acting chops in the late-90s with Good Will Hunting.

One could be forgiven for believing that this was his first foray into serious drama, since most of his other hit movies during that same time period were broad comedies filled with rapid fire jokes, improvised lines, and tons of celebrity impressions (Aladdin, Patch Adams, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook).

However, little did we know that Williams had been dedicated to taking on more complex projects a full decade before, with a slew of juicy roles that straddled the line between comedy and drama and netted him a handful of Oscar nominations (Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam).

While I’m certainly not an expert on Williams’ filmography throughout the 1980s, I’m confident in saying that Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, released in 1984, is a precursor to the actor’s future success, since he carries the entire movie on his back with a sweet, funny and understated performance.

In the film, Williams plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian saxophone player who decides to defect to the United States once the circus that employs him makes a trip to New York City. From there, we follow Vladimir’s ups and downs as he navigates the country’s immigration system and does his best to adjust to the American way of life.

Obviously, the biggest highlight here is Williams, who makes the wise decision to avoid adopting a cartoonish Russian accent and ridiculously stilted English speaking pattern to try and generate laughs from the audience.

Instead, his character shines through his empathy, work ethic and good-hearted nature, which comes across as being much more authentic and funny than some kind of broad caricature.

While a lot of the credit for this dynamic goes towards Mazursky’s script, Williams also needs to be commended for doing his homework.

Reportedly, the actor spent about a year learning the language and other Soviet customs before principal photography began, which is a hell of a lot more preparation than some other Hollywood stars have undertaken for playing Russians in the past.

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But Williams’ performance isn’t the only thing that turns Moscow on the Hudson into a real hidden gem.

On top of featuring a thoroughly likable cast who have great comedic chemistry, the people behind the camera should be given a lot of credit for pulling the film’s different elements together into a cohesive whole.

For example, seasoned director of photography Donald McAlpine does a brilliant job of bringing New York City to life on screen. Not only does he shoot the city’s famous landmarks in a way that perfectly mimics the wide-eyed wonder that a newcomer like Vladimir would feel, but his cinematography also has the added affect of making me feel nostalgic for a place I’ve never visited.

Composer David McHugh also makes a big impression by choosing just the right song or musical sting at just the right moment. Probably one of the funniest sequences in the whole movie is Vladimir’s decision to defect in a large US department store, where Soviet marching music plays overtop of scenes of communist circus performers and their KGB handlers shopping for clothes and jewelry.

But by far the biggest star of this whole enterprise is the script, which really does a great job of crafting a “rah, rah” patriotic American film without veering off into the territory of outright propaganda, like some other 1980s properties I could name ….

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With that being said, Moscow on the Hudson still holds the United States in very high regard, portraying it as a global paragon of virtue and morality, especially when compared to the Soviet Union.

But rather than demonstrating the US’s outright superiority through more regressive characteristics like military might or isolationist policies, Mazursky emphasizes that this country is great because of its multiculturalism and welcoming attitude towards immigrants.

Virtually all of the film’s supporting characters are immigrants, whose kindness and strength come from their ability to adapt to their adopted homeland.

Furthermore, most of the film’s second half takes place inside of distinctly ethnic clubs, grocery stores and restaurants, which communicates the idea that American culture is perpetuated through these sorts of institutions.

As a character, Vladimir even embodies this philosophy through his love of playing the saxophone, since jazz is a uniquely American creation.

Some might feel that this ”touchy-feely” approach robs of the film of any tactile conflict, and what conflict exists is rather forced and manufactured, especially after the KGB agents largely leave the picture following Act One.

And I’ll be the first one to admit that this movie is not without its cheesy moments, especially one scene near the end of the film where the characters literally recite passages from the Declaration of Independence out of nowhere.

But given how toxic and divisive the US political climate is right now, Moscow on the Hudson is a breath of fresh air.

And at the end of the day, I’m sure an actor like Williams, who spent his whole career trying to make people laugh, would be happy to know that one of his earlier films still serves as a heart-warming reminder of how the American experiment can be used to bring people together instead of tearing them apart.

Verdict:

9/10

Corner store companion:

Werther’s Original Caramel Hard Candies (because it’s still remarkably sweet, despite how long it’s been in circulation).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: April 6, 1984.

-Budget: $13 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $25.1 million.

-Unexpected cameo: Comedian Yakov Smirnoff makes a brief appearance as “Lev,” one of Vladimir’s new friends in New York who is also an aspiring celestial mechanic and astrophysicist.

-On top of learning to speak fluent Russian, Williams also spent months studying how to play the saxophone for this role. According to the actor’s music teacher, Williams learned in two months what usually takes normal people two years to master.

-For a while, director Paul Mazursky tried to get a sequel called Moscow on the Rocks made, although it never came to fruition. The plot of this follow-up film would have followed Vladimir, now a cutthroat New York City businessman, as he travels back to his homeland for his sister’s wedding and falls in love with a Russian doctor.

-The portions of the film that are set in Moscow were actually shot at Bavaria Studios in Munich, Germany.

-Musical highlight: “Freedom” by Chaka Khan (plays over the end credits).