Movie Review: The Magic of Belle Isle

(l to r) Morgan Freeman, on the set with director Rob Reiner

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

In an attempt to understand how onetime directorial genius Rob Reiner could have misplaced his brilliant talent, grinding out a series of disappointing, often sappy films since 1996, here’s some theories:

1. He’s been forced to spend a certain amount of time each month locked away in a Hallmark card store;

2. He was offed by his evil twin Bert, who was sure that he could do just as good a job; or

3. Mr. Reiner stopped working with strong screenwriters.

The third choice is probably closest to the truth (although the Hallmark theory has a certain allure). Other than 1994′s North, Reiner directed eight films between 1984 and 1995 that reflect a stunning success, due in no small part to the screenwriters: Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally), William Goldman (The Princess Bride), Stephen King (Stand By Me, Misery), Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President), and the triad of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (This is Spinal Tap). The one exception was the lesser-known team of Jonathan Roberts & Steve Bloom (James and the Giant Peach), the writers of A Sure Thing.

But from 1996 on, Reiner’s films have resulted in some halting limps and other utter disasters. While no one gets it right all the time, the fact that Reiner has all but eschewed his prior talent and taste is simply jaw-dropping.

Which leads us to the lackluster The Magic of Belle Isle, written primarily by Guy Thomas (1980′s Wholly Moses), with additional credits to Reiner and Andrew Scheinman. (Note: Whenever producer Scheinman volunteers to help Reiner with writing duties, it’s a questionable help at best, i.e., North and Flipped.) This script is so poorly crafted, it trumps many of those that have eroded the Reiner legacy since ’96. And that’s saying something.

Spot and Monty (Morgan Freeman)

The film is centered around Morgan Freeman’s wheelchair-bound alcoholic writer Monte Wildhorn who, ever since the death of his wife, has lost his knack for writing his once-popular Western novels. Hoping that a change of scenery might do Monte some good, nephew Henry (Kenan Thompson) relocates his uncle to a lakeside cabin rental for the summer in the small, east coast town of Belle Isle. And the first thing that catches Monte’s eye? Why, it’s the recently divorced Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen), hosing down her rooftop. See, it turns out that there’s a fire on the other side of the island (a fact that only exists in order to stage the sight of an attractive woman standing on a roof). Though Monte is supposedly a drunk curmudgeon without a reason to live, he soon turns into the twinkling, all-knowing oldster-next-door to Mrs. O’Neil and her three daughters, easily befriending animals, small children and the mentally handicapped.

Endemic to Reiner’s earlier The Bucket List (another Freeman vehicle), a paucity of obstacles flatlines this project. Such as when the middle daughter (a delightful Emma Fuhrmann) rafts over to an island in the middle of the lake, certain that some magic awaits. Sure enough, after ambling to the first tree she sees, lo and behold!, she finds an old lunchbox just inside the tree’s cavity. Could Reiner have directed her to search under a bush or two first, just to make her incredible discovery appear a bit more, um, credible? And it’s this very lunchbox that causes the eldest daughter (Madeline Carroll of Flipped) to change her pouty ways, from difficult to angelic, in all of the time it takes to pry open the lid.

The filmmakers might have allowed themselves a bit more time to work up some kind of viable story, with actual conflicts, even some in-depth character examination. (Fred Willard’s neighbor is merely a comic bit, his presence as unnecessary as the aforementioned fire on the island.) Here, we get a parade of sloppy 2D: The mom is nice, the nephew is kind, the kids are cute, the clown is mean, etc. At least the dog’s got some chops … but then again, since he doesn’t have to rely on the screenwriters’ words, he’s out of the woods.

That said, Freeman seems to be having a good time on screen, and his character’s idiosyncratic, erudite vernacular serves as the film’s one saving grace. (Although it’s odd that the children call him by his first name, while he and the girls’ mother remain on a formal Mr. and Mrs. Basis.) As his co-star, Madsen appears highly uncomfortable; it’s no wonder, given that she has to blather one stilted line after another.

Relegated to Video On Demand for over a month before its theatrical release, the movie is stuck in a mawkish pleasantville that’s oddly, steroidally orchestrated by Marc Shaiman. But Reiner himself appears to have no qualms, stating in a recent interview, “As I’m getting older I find that I want to make movies that are life-affirming, that really embrace life.” Fine. Embrace away. But while you’re embracing, Mr. Reiner, could you find a way to re-embrace your talent as well?

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Rating on a scale of 5 not-so Sure Things: 2

Release date: July 6, 2012 (ltd.)
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Screenplay by: Guy Thomas and Rob Reiner and Andrew Scheinman
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Virginia Madsen, Madeline Carroll, Emma Fuhrmann, Nicolette Pierini, Kenan Thompson
Rating: PG
Running Time: 109 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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