There was a time when I wanted to know what Rob Reiner was up to, back when he was making movies like This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Stand by Me and, perhaps most of all, When Harry Met Sally. It was after A Few Good Men and Ghosts of Mississippi that I sort of lost track of him, because it seemed like he was directing more sporadically, and when he was directing, he was making films like The Story of Us and Rumor Has It, frothy crowd-pleasers that didn't grab me the way Billy Crystal eventually grabbed Meg Ryan.
Then came The Bucket List, a film about two dying old men, played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, which I simply could not connect with at all. It felt that at least one of us was out of touch, though there was certainly an audience out there who loved it—The Bucket List was a wildly profitable venture.
Now, Reiner's teamed again with Freeman to make The Magic of Belle Isle, another movie that isn't for me. Like many of Reiner's recent works, Belle Isle—which opens Friday, July 20, at Hillcrest Cinemas—is intentionally sentimental, and, certainly, there are audiences who prefer their films like this, simple and uncomplicated. Essentially, this is a safe and inoffensive movie.
Freeman plays Monte Wildhorn, a faded, wheelchair-bound, alcoholic writer whose best days are clearly behind him. He's well-known for creating Jubal, an iconic character in a series of westerns, but he hasn't written a new book in years. He's broken down and broke and has nowhere to go, so his nephew, Henry (Kenan Thompson), sets him up with a housesitting gig in a sleepy summer community not far from New York City. Henry brings Monte's typewriter, too, just in case the old man decides to put down the bottle and pick up the narrative once again.
Living next to Monte's summer abode is Charlotte O'Neil (Virginia Madsen), a newly single mom whose three girls, Willow (Madeline Carroll), Finn (Emma Fuhrmann) and Flora (Nicolette Pierni) fit the archetypes of irritated teen, precocious tween and adorable munchkin, respectively. After a rough first meeting with Charlotte, Monte soon becomes intrigued by the family, and it isn't long before he's teaching Finn to use her imagination, writing stories for young Flora and being a decent enough person that Willow sees that she should cut her poor mother some slack. There's an interesting attraction between Charlotte and Monte, too—it's less physical than it is emotional, almost as if each is nostalgic for something that's yet to occur. That sentimentality runs throughout the entire film in a wistful way, like a summer romance for an older generation.
That's a nice idea, but Reiner doesn't do much to elevate the material. And, you've now had the heart of the film described, without spoilers, because there's very little to spoil. Not much happens in The Magic of Belle Isle, despite a nice cameo from Fred Willard, the possibility of Monte's literary creation being bought up by a movie star and the impact the old writer has on an intellectually disabled teenager. Depending on your own aesthetic, the film's relaxed nature will be either a huge positive or negative. We're so conditioned to a stable narrative being derailed by a traumatic event that it's surprising when it doesn't occur. That sets The Magic of Belle Isle apart, but it also makes it fairly bland.
Freeman delivers exactly what you'd expect and gives the movie some occasional gravity, but even his character's decision to stop drinking is feels unenthusiastic. It seems like a movie that might have been made for my parents—or, more likely, it's my parents' parents who might have fallen under the spell of The Magic of Belle Isle. Me, I'm more the type who wants to sort out how the magician does the trick; in this case, I think there was very little up Rob Reiner's sleeve.
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