While I've never read a Nicholas Sparks novel, in the films made from his books, his characters inevitably experience The Big Contradiction. Namely, that love is fleeting - and it is eternal.

Having seen all four movies adapted from Sparks' books - Message in a Bottle, The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, and, now, Nights in Rodanthe - I can vouch that they are to tear duct what milking machine is to cow udder. Namely, a most effective instrument for stimulating the production and release of vital bodily fluids.

Rodanthe is a reliably steamy stormy sultry story about Inner Change at the Outer Banks where strangers become intimates. More specifically, where Paul Flanner, emotionally detached doctor, creatively unlocks Adrienne Willis, thwarted artist, as she shows him how to attach.

The film is nicely cast with frequent costars Richard Gere, centered and glinty as a silver belt buckle, and Diane Lane, warm and encircling as a copper bracelet. Making his feature filmmaking debut, George C. Wolfe, the illustrious theater director, elicits heartfelt work from his leads.

Wolfe is an excellent director of actors, masterfully dialing down the inherent melodrama to quiet naturalism. But he is at best a journeyman director of film, confusing the picturesque for the cinematic while failing to note that the exterior of the presumably cozy and romantic North Carolina B&B where his story is set looks as Halloweeny and ramshackle - and digitized - as Count Olaf's cobwebbed abode in the gothic fantasy A Series of Unfortunate Events.

And while Scott Glenn is effective as the husband of one of Paul's patients and an uncredited James Franco is heartbreakingly fine as Paul's estranged son, every sequence not featuring just Gere and Lane feels generic.

A few words about Gere and Lane. Both look terrific. More pertinent, both look terrifically at peace. Nothing flamboyant or starry about their performances or their persons, which are comforting and well-worn (and well-loved) as house slippers. Unlike so many big-name actors, male and female, they don't resemble collagen conventions - which makes it easier to see them as human.

Admittedly, there's something diagrammatic about the way Sparks conceives their characters as complementarily imbalanced life opposites: Paul as a man who has sacrificed wife and son for career, Adrienne a woman who has sacrificed career for daughter and husband.

But in the playing there is something cathartic - not to mention homeopathic - to scenes where workaholic Paul suggests the work remedy for Adrienne and the interpersonal Adrienne prescribes the feelings cure for Paul.

Plus, there's just enough home cooking, canoodling and walks along the beach to make Rodanthe look like the realization of the ideal personals ad.

While this might not sound like the ideal movie for everyone, me included, I was surprised by its sheer potency. Is it that when you're bawling you can't tell whether you're being spoonfed honey or treacle, and anyway your salty tears just make it taste all the sweeter?


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/