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)

A Walk to Remember (2002) review-Is it dusty in here or something?

My inaugural journey into the Nicholas Sparks cinematic universe got off to a shaky start last year, with Message in a Bottle (1999) providing lots of beautiful imagery but a fundamentally flawed love story at its core.

Because of this, I booted up A Walk to Remember (2002) with some serious reservations, expecting the same unbalanced experience that failed to show me why Sparks’ brand of romantic fiction has resonated with so many people.

However, this time around, the cast and crew behind the author’s second big-screen adaptation really went out of their way to sell you on the central relationship between the two leads, which is all you really need for this kind of movie to work.

The plot of A Walk to Remember revolves around rebellious high schooler Landon (Shane West), whose tendency to hang around with the wrong crowd eventually lands him in hot water with the law.

In order to avoid jail time and expulsion, this troubled young man signs up for a variety of community service programs, which puts him in close proximity with fellow student Jamie (Mandy Moore).

Even though they come from different backgrounds, the pair form an unlikely romantic bond that puzzles Landon’s friends and worries Jamie’s minister father. 

Now, if you read that synopsis (or watched the above trailer) and rolled your eyes I wouldn’t blame you.

This “star-crossed lovers” premise has been executed hundreds of times on film and A Walk to Remember does very little to mix up that formula.

In fact, it’s almost comedic how far director Adam Shankman goes to position West and Moore as an unlikely couple in the beginning.

Not only does the pair dress like they are inhabiting different centuries, but the film’s soundtrack even reinforces this disconnect by giving each character contrasting musical cues.

While Moore is usually surrounded by a choir or gentle, ambient music, West’s bad boy interloper is constantly backed by a punk or grunge band whenever he is on screen.

Even though this technique accomplishes its goal of distinguishing these two characters, the filmmakers lay it on way too thick, to the point where each scene transitions feels like you are jumping into a completely different movie.

This ham-fisted set-up also isn’t helped by some clunky dialogue early on, where screenwriter Karen Janszen decided to cram a lot of Jamie’s backstory into a single conversation.

But as the plot moves forward, a lot of those glaring weaknesses begin to fade away as the dynamic between Moore and West finally takes shape, which is hands down the best part of the movie.

Not only does the pair have crazy chemistry, but Janszen also maps out some pretty satisfying character development through their evolving relationship.

Like most great movie romances, Landon and Jamie bring the best out of each other as they become closer, helping to fill an emotional void that both characters have had to endure because of an absent parental figure.

Once this bond really takes hold, both characters demonstrate their ability to grow as people, with Jamie learning to come out of her shell while Landon finally showcases some empathy that he had been lacking up until this point.

And then, cruelly, Sparks pulls the rug out from under the audience with a third act revelation that has made this story a prolific tearjerker for an entire generation of readers and moviegoers.  

A WALK TO REMEMBER, Mandy Moore, Shane West, 2002 (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection.

Again, nothing about this framework is revolutionary, and A Walk to Remember got righteously raked over the coals by critics when it was originally released for being “boring,” “melodramatic,” “cliché-ridden” and even “simple-minded.”

However, I believe that this simplicity is why the movie works so well, since it is laser focused on the two appealing leads and doesn’t get bogged down in a bunch of unnecessary sub plots.

In fact, one of the film’s biggest missteps, in my eyes, are these brief digressions involving Landon’s estranged father, who doesn’t meaningfully add to the plot and should have been cut out of the story altogether.

Because, at the end of the day, all the audience really cares about is watching Moore and West interact on screen, and for very good reason.

 The back and forth between these two is very fun to watch, since they genuinely appear to enjoy each other’s company and don’t rely on the film’s soundtrack or cinematography to do the heavy lifting.  

Moore is particularly impressive inhabiting a role that requires her to act like a full-grown adult stuck in a teenager’s body, especially since she was only 17-18 at the time of filming. 

And when that tragic third act revelation finally rears its ugly head, her performance actually takes on a whole new layer of meaning, encouraging you to watch the whole movie again with this new information in mind.

Admittedly, these two strong lead performances aren’t backed up by any real impressive filmmaking, since Shankman’s direction is pretty bland and doesn’t hold a candle to the scenic vistas that were on display throughout Message in a Bottle.  

That being said, he does show some flourishes every now and again by utilizing the occasional long take, including a series of lengthy tracking shots that introduce a lot of the supporting cast in the opening minutes of the movie.   

Still, I’m not going to pretend like Shankman’s mise-en-scène in A Walk to Remember is particularly noteworthy or eye-catching.

In fact, it seems like most of those key visual elements—like composition, production design, lighting and costuming—are being used to service the two main leads as opposed to all the surrounding scenery.

But, in retrospect, that decision was probably for the best, since the relationship between Moore and West is the main selling point of the movie. And in that respect, I think most people left the theatre back in 2002 feeling like they got their money’s worth.

Overall, I think the main reason why A Walk to Remember succeeds where other romantic dramas fail is that the central love story is simple and earnest.

Even when the plot veers off into some heavy subject matter later on, the film doesn’t feel overly manipulative or like it is trying too hard to make the audience weep.

Instead, those tears flow from a very natural place, which is a testament to Janszen’s script and the original source material.

I don’t know if any of Sparks’ other screen adaptations contain similar levels of emotional potency, but I’m looking forward to seeing where this journey takes me.

After all, if I’m going to cry living under these lockdown conditions, I’d prefer my source of woe to be a piece of media rather than the crushing realization that I can’t see my friends and family right now.

Er …. anyway … Happy Valentine’s Day!!!

Verdict:

7/10

Corner store companion:

Scotties and Kleenex brand tissues (because you’ll really need them for the final reel of this film)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Jan. 25, 2002

-Budget: $ 11,800,000 (estimated)

-Box Office Gross: $ 41, 281,092 (domestic), $47,494,916 (worldwide)

A Walk to Remember serves as Mandy Moore’s first major movie role following her well-established career in music. Before this film, she mostly nabbed supporting roles in films like Dr. Dolittle 2 and The Princess Diaries.

-Many of the sets featured in A Walk to Remember were used by the cast and crew of Dawson’s Creek, a long-running teen drama that was also shot in Wilmington, North Carolina.  

-Even though Sparks’ original novel took place in the 1950s, he and the filmmakers decided to update the setting to the 1990s/2000s for the screen adaptation, believing that this change of scenery would resonate a lot more with modern audiences.

-In a 2015 interview with The Wrap, Shane West revealed that he was so enamored with the 1967 Chevrolet Camaro he drove in this film that he bought this classic muscle car following the first week of shooting.

-Like Moore, Shane West has an extensive background in music as well as acting, serving as the lead singer of the punk bands Johnny Was in the 1990s and Twilight Creeps in the 2010s.

-Musical highlight: “Cry” by Mandy Moore (this thematically appropriate song plays over the movie’s closing credits)

Message in a Bottle (1999) review- missing that crucial spark

When it comes to film criticism, I always try to take my professional life out of the equation, especially when a movie decides to mimic the world I inhabit as reporter.

But Luis Mandoki’s Message in a Bottle (1999), based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, contains such a flagrant example of journalistic malpractice from the main character that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at what’s otherwise a pretty enjoyable romantic drama.

The film stars Robin Wright as Theresa Osbourne, a researcher for the Chicago Tribune who conducts a nation-wide search for a mystery man after one of his love letters (contained in a bottle, naturally) washes up on the shore of a nearby beach.

Theresa’s search eventually leads her to a sleepy sea-side town in North Carolina, where she comes face-to-face with the author himself: a soft-spoken widower played by Kevin Costner.

Even though Theresa was sent there to gather information on the man (Garrett) and his tragic love story, she neglects to disclose the real reason for her visit, not wanting to spoil the mutual attraction that’s growing between them.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with this set-up on multiple levels.

In terms of journalistic ethics, Theresa failing to divulge her true assignment to Garrett from the get-go is incredibly sketchy, since she’s gathering sensitive details about a man’s dead wife under false pretenses.   

This approach might have made sense if the character worked for a scuzzy tabloid newspaper that is completely devoid of editorial scruples.

But in the real world, even the gutter trash “reporters” that work for TMZ announce who they are when they harass celebrities at the airport, so I don’t know why Sparks and screenwriter Gerald Di Pego decided to portray the Chicago Tribune staff in such a negative light (intentionally or not).

On a writing level, this deceitful action also drags down Wright’s otherwise solid lead performance as Theresa, who is meant to be this kind, empathetic figure but just comes across as being manipulative.

No matter how many times she shares a cute moment with Garrett or even his crusty father Dodge (played by Paul Newman), I couldn’t get invested in these relationships since they are built on a foundation of lies.

Of course, it’s obvious why they decided to include this plot element in the story: to build tension.

Theresa’s deception serves as a kind of Sword of Damocles for the narrative, something that hangs over the central romance and threatens to destroy it at any second.

And while every good love story needs tangible conflict beyond a “will they, won’t they?” dynamic, a seemingly good-hearted person lying to a grieving widower by omission seems like the laziest possible way to inject that sort of speed bump into the plot.

In my view, Message in a Bottle (1999) would be vastly improved if Theresa simply revealed her intentions to Garrett from the outset.

Not only is this approach more consistent with how the character is written, but it also provides a much more interesting avenue for conflict, where she gradually has to win Garrett’s trust as both a reporter and romantic partner throughout the course of the story.

I know my fixation on this one plot point is a little over-the-top, but that’s only because it drags down a movie that I really wanted to like.

After all, this is my first time indulging in a Nicholas Sparks story, and it’s easy to see why his specific slice of romantic fiction has spawned such a vast media empire on the printed page and silver screen.

For one thing, the film’s cinematography is consistently gorgeous, with Oscar-nominated DP Caleb Deschanel doing an expert job of capturing the beauty of costal America that Sparks loves to write about.

Some lingering shots of sailboats and crashing ocean waves might wander into the territory of scenery porn, but that at least has some relevance to the plot, reinforcing Theresa’s desire to abandon her life in the big city to live with Garrett.

This idyllic, small-town atmosphere is made even more appealing thanks to a really strong supporting cast, who come across as the exact kind of people you would want to chat up after checking into a bed and breakfast.

Paul Newman really shines in this capacity, with his character’s salt-of-the-earth wisdom and sassy comebacks leading to some of the film’s best moments.

Plus, the movie’s soundtrack features a bevy of easy-listening icons like Faith Hill, Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan, which compliments this laid-back aesthetic in a very meaningful way.

Of course, Message in a Bottle has a couple other things holding it back aside from a single questionable writing decision at its core.

For one thing, the film’s runtime clocks in at over two hours, which is way too long for this kind of movie and it really kills the momentum in the third act.

You’ll also notice that I haven’t commented on Costner’s qualities as a romantic lead up until this point, and that’s because he barely registers as a presence on screen.

I understand that it’s difficult to squeeze a compelling performance out of a character who is meant to emotionally withdrawn, but Costner never really manages to get himself out of first gear, even when he’s asked to deliver a passionate monologue later on in the movie.

It’s almost like he suffers from the reverse problem of his co-star (Wright), since Costner’s wooden acting doesn’t compliment some admittedly solid character writing from Sparks and Di Pego.

Unfortunately, these two incomplete characters don’t coalesce into a compelling whole, which is a big problem when your romantic leads are the movie’s biggest selling point.  

Despite this film’s mixed quality, it still hasn’t discouraged me from watching the remaining four entries in my “5 Film Collection: Nicholas Sparks” DVD set.

Clearly the author has tapped into a formula that resonates with a lot of people—having sold over 115 million copies of his books worldwide—and I’m curious to see if the more appealing qualities of Message in a Bottle (1999) are way more prevalent in future film adaptations.

But hopefully this story marks the last time Sparks dips his toes into writing about the world of journalism, since he’s clearly out of his depth when it comes to this subject.  

Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Sensations Cracker Assortment (because this is possible one of the whitest movies I’ve ever seen)

Fun facts:

-Release date: Feb. 12, 1999

-Budget: $80,000 (estimated)

-Box Office Gross: $52,880,016 (domestic), $118,880, 016 (international)

Message in a Bottle is the first of 11 total Nicholas Sparks film adaptations. Altogether, these movies have grossed a combined $ 889,615,166 worldwide. 

-While all of Sparks’ films manage to turn a profit, none of them are critical darlings. Out of all 11 movies, The Notebook has come the closest to achieving a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes at 53 per cent.

-Sparks originally published Message in a Bottle back in 1998. It was his second official novel after The Notebook in 1994.

-Sparks’ most recent written work, The Return, was released back in September of this year, which marked his 21st published novel. He’s also written two non-fiction books.

-Kevin Costner was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award (Worst Actor) in 2000 for his performance in both Message in a Bottle and For The Love of the Game.

-Musical highlight: “Carolina” by Sheryl Crow (plays over the end credits)