REVIEW: Rob Reiner Gives Us a Sticky-sweet and Textureless Magic of Belle Isle
What was Rob Reiner's last noteworthy film? Was it Ghosts of Mississippi in 1996? The American President, the year before? 1992's A Few Good Men? Reiner has continued to work steadily since a phenomenal mainstream movie run in the '80s into the early '90s that included, among others, This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally..., though you wouldn't be faulted for not having paid his recent output much mind. As a director, his tendencies toward sentimentality have thickened and clotted over the years, and films like The Bucket List and Flipped haven't had enough else to them to balance out what comes across as cloying and clumsy at best and shamelessly pandering at worst.
The Magic of Belle Isle, which Reiner directed from a screenplay he co-wrote with Guy Thomas and Andrew Scheinman, is as sticky-sweet and textureless as a bowl of pudding, though an amused central performance from star Morgan Freeman continually finds nuance and the unexpected where there ultimately isn't any. The film is set in the present day despite the fact that it opens with the tinkle of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" and offers up a vision of small town life so glowing and nostalgic it's practically golden-hued, the kind in which a young girl's befriending and spending a lot of alone time with the older man who's new to the area is regarded fondly instead of with any alarm or suspicion.
Freeman plays that older man, a widowed, wheelchair-bound former writer of successful westerns named Monte Wildhorn who's set aside his typewriter in favor of a whiskey bottle. For a grumpy, misanthropic alcoholic, he's still awfully adorable, something that's partially due to Freeman's inherent savvy charisma but which is mostly the fault of the script, which wants to sum up Monte's frustration by having him yell in an empty room. "What's he yelling at?" asks Finnegan O'Neil (Emma Fuhrmann), who lives next door. "Life," replies his nephew (Kenan Thompson) sagely.
That nephew's found Monte a house to stay in for the summer in exchange for some pet-sitting, and soon the man is befriending (or being befriended by, despite his objections) the family next door -- the recently divorced Mrs. O'Neil (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters, among them the teenage Willow (Madeline Carroll), middle child Finnegan and little Flora (Nicolette Pierini). Will he find romance, bond with the girl who's an aspiring writer, discover a new lease on life and start writing again? To quote the wisdom of the Magic 8 Ball, "You may rely on it."
Over the course of The Magic of Belle Isle, Freeman gets to play off of a dog, several cute children, a party clown, a developmentally disabled young man named Karl who likes to bunny-hop around, an eccentric local (Fred Willard) and, of course, Madsen's winsome, piano-playing divorcée. With all respect to Freeman's other co-stars, it's the dog with whom he's best, delivering wry, eloquent monologues about proper names and behavior for canines and trying, unsuccessfully, to coax the animal into chasing a ball. ("I see the concept of fetch eludes you," he observes.)
Monte's tentative courting of Madsen's character, whom he too-cutely insists on calling "Mrs. O'Neil" just as she keeps to calling him "Mr. Wildhorn," progresses, chastely, only because the two seem to realizes it's expected rather than because of any convincing touch of romance between them. Freeman and Madsen are, however, good together when not under the burden of conjuring up sparks. Similarly, Finnegan's hiring of Monte to "teach her about imagination" is structured in ways that are almost intolerably corny -- he instructs her, for example, to "look out there and tell me what's not there" in order to encourage her to make up stories.
The only hint of stakes in The Magic of Belle Isle are glanced over briefly in the film's beginning, when a surly Monte threatens suicide when he's shuttled off to his temporary home. But aside from that moment, Monte never seems so glum as to be serious about ending things -- he's living in a beautiful house in an idyllic town and has a clear enjoyment for people, which makes the movie easier while making its ideas about depression seem flimsy. The film moves along by the numbers, making no sudden or unexpected movements, and Reiner doesn't offer any stylistic choices worth mentioning; everything gets creakier toward the end, with the expected mild disagreements and disappointments to be resolved.
The only question mark this unexceptional feature leaves open is why Monte initially turns down the Hollywood star who comes in person to ask to buy the rights to his gunslinger character. "Most of the time real life doesn't measure up to what's in your head," he explains to the actor, saying that for once in his life that's not the case. But there's no reason why selling his book would necessitate making any lifestyle changes -- he does it only to enable the eventual happy ending. In a movie in which nothing happens that you can't see coming from miles away, it's proof that you can still manage moments that feel startlingly artificial.