It might be hard to believe it now, but Rob Reiner once had a great instinct for material. In the first ten years of his filmmaking career he directed This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men, and two of the best Stephen King adaptations ever made, Stand By Me and Misery. But Reiner’s second decade as a director kicked off with the legendary bad North (of which Roger Ebert famously wrote in his review, “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it”) and was inconsistent. His third decade has been even worse, with mostly a string of forgettable rom-coms and that movie that Jack Nicholson shaved his head for.
Reiner is a talented filmmaker — The Magic of Belle Isle proves this — but he’s certainly lost his instinct on what makes a compelling story. What he’s done with The Magic of Belle Isle is take a story that is rather pedestrian (the ol’ “young person teaches a cranky old person how to live again”) and made a watchable movie out of it. That takes talent enough because trust me, you’ve seen this movie before, yet it entertains enough to keep the narrative interesting. It’s just that it’s as generic as the film’s poster, which you can see to the left.
Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) is an alcoholic, wheelchair-bound writer of cowboy novels who has spiraled into self-hatred and poverty since the death of his wife several years ago. His nephew (played in a small role by Kenan Thompson) manages to find a house where Monte can live for free for the summer in Belle Isle, a small summer vacation community as long as Monte is willing to dog-sit. His neighbors include Mrs. O’Neill (Virginia Masden) and her three daughters, teenager Willow (Madeline Carroll), ten year-old Finn (Emma Fuhrrmann), and seven year-old Flora. Mrs. O’Neill is going through a divorce with her husband, which is obviously taking a toll on the daughters. In particular, Finn begins to take a liking to Monte, and though Monte treats her gruffly at first he begins to come around and enjoys the company of the O’Neill girls.
Of course, Freeman is great — he starts out as a nasty grump who drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys faster than any man I’ve ever seen — but soon enough turns into the Morgan Freeman we all know and love. His folksy, western-inspired dialogue is delivered exactly in the way it needs to be. Masden is also a strong addition to the cast, and the young actresses who play her daughters show a surprising amount of talent. That being said, while that all makes for a charming mixture it doesn’t hide the fact that the conflict that ends Act II is contrived and the plot is so familiar you might find yourself speaking the lines along with Freeman as he says them.
It is a big step in the right direction for Reiner, especially since the film has been out on VOD for nearly three weeks with little fanfare (it gets a limited release in theaters on July 6). This movie has gotten hardly any promotion, which made me expect it to be ugly when I walked in. It certainly isn’t — it’s the type of a film that’s family friendly for everyone, from your kid sister to your grandma.
Rating: It won’t win any awards or change anyone’s life, but it’s confidently acted and is a reliable feel-good film (6.5/10).