You have to hand it to author Nicholas Sparks: he's found his winning formula, and he's sticking to it. Sparks, who has had several films adapted from his romance novels, likes unlikely pairs brought together by the vagaries of fate who are then rent asunder by unexpected tragedy. Now Sparks seems to be utilizing his untold millions wisely, at least as far as can be deigned from one of the extras on Nights in Rodanthe--he coaches high school track students and he and his wife have even set up an alternative school dedicated to "old fashioned" values and teaching methods. That still doesn't completely absolve Sparks from going to the same well a couple of times too often, and while Rodanthe has two big "movie star" performances by Diane Lane and Richard Gere, and some truly lovely scenery and production design, it still labors under an oppressive weight of "been there done that" for most of its short running time.
As someone who's spent most of his adult life within a stone's throw or so of the Pacific Ocean, I was delighted to spend some time last year with my eldest sister, who has a gorgeous vacation property on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I was struck by the sparse, rugged beauty of the Atlantic coast, something quite different than the majestic cliffs and wide sandy beaches out west (at least in Oregon). That environment is put to stunningly good use in Rodanthe, which makes the almost desert-like background a character. The plot revolves around Adrienne (Lane), a perhaps soon to be divorced woman with a teenage daughter and younger son, who has agreed to monitor her friend's Rodanthe, North Carolina beach hotel for a weekend. As Adrienne is packing the kids off for a stay with her estranged husband (Christopher Meloni), he drops the emotional bomb on her that he wants to come back, despite an affair he had. That sends Adrienne into a bit of a tailspin as she arrives at the gorgeous beachfront property to assume hotelier duties for a few days.
The one guest booked for a stay turns out to be Doctor Paul Flanner (Richard Gere), who we find out, through a series of not very artfully handled flashbacks, is recovering from a divorce and kid estrangement of his own after a patient of his died on the operating table. It further turns out he's in Rodanthe because the deceased woman's husband had written to Flanner requesting a meeting.
We therefore get a typical Sparks setup of two emotionally damaged people brought together under unique circumstances who through their grit and determination will not only help heal each other, but also fall in love, dadgumit. If there's not a real surprise to be had in Rodanthe, there is the passing entertainment of seeing two very accomplished actors do some generally fine work, at least in the more understated moments. The opening scenes between Lane and Gere are especially well handled by the stars, with a palpable sense of uncomfortableness. Some of the other, more over the top, moments are a bit questionable, from a "feels real" standpoint, notably Gere's explosion after he's confronted by the dead woman's son, and especially Lane's sobbing hysteria when she's confronted by tragedy toward the end of the film.
What tends to elevate Rodanthe above the standard turgid soap opera tragic love tale is the enticing production design, which almost reminded me of Mamma Mia!, believe it or not, with deep cerulean blue interiors and some absolutely striking shots of the Carolina waters. Director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America on Broadway) has a firm grasp on the visual possibilities of the film's setting, and utilizes them extremely well. He also manages to keep tabs on both Lane and Gere, aside from the occasional outburst mentioned above. The quieter moments of this film are by far the most affecting. By the time things devolve into the putative tearjerking finale, it seems more than a little forced, especially the kind of silly (and completely predictable) coda that has Lane finding her spiritual mojo again.
If there's nothing exceptionally new or exciting about Rodanthe, there's also nothing egregiously horrible about it, either. It harkens back to the heartstring pulling romances of yore (especially if they have a tragic undercurrent), things like An Affair to Remember or Love Story. If you're a fan of this kind of tried and true formula, you could probably do a lot worse than to spend one night in Nights in Rodanthe.