Given the awfulness of his new film, The Magic of Belle Isle, it's time to ask whether Reiner himself had much to do with the success of movies like When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride.
What the hell happened to Rob Reiner? It's not as though he's the first talented filmmaker to lose his touch. Robert Zemekis, John Carpenter, Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, and plenty of others have turned out works that paled in comparison to the pictures that made their reputations. But few have done so as dramatically as Reiner.
Nearly all of Reiner's great films could be seen as primarily the work of another, more talented party: Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin, Christopher Guest, William Goldman
For the first decade of his career behind the camera, he seemingly couldn't make a bad film; in the years since, he seems incapable of making a good one. The impressiveness of his hot streak (This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men, The American President) is matched only by the embarrassingly turgid quality of the films he's done since (North, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story of Us, Alex & Emma, Rumor Has It, The Bucket List, Flipped). The switch was a bit tentative—his first bad film (North) was followed by his last good one (President)—but he hasn't looked back since. So it's disappointing but not particularly surprising that his new film, The Magic of Belle Isle, is more of the same.
The setting is upstate New York, and the time is the present day, though you wouldn't know it from the picture's overly nostalgic tone (it opens with the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby") or its throwback portrait of small-town life. Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) is a Western novelist who hasn't written a word since his wife's death a few years back; he passes his days drinking and being cranky. He's spending the summer housesitting, next door to an attractive, newly single mother (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters.
Anyone reading the paragraph above can probably hazard some pretty safe guesses as to where the narrative goes. The screenplay (by Guy Thomas, Reiner, and his Flipped co-writer Andrew Scheinman) gives everybody an easy arc to travel with little resistance, so after some initial (but not impolite!) friction, of course the mother and her teenager daughter will reconnect, and of course Monte will stop gazing longingly at his typewriter and find inspiration to write again, and of course he and the pretty lady next door will embark on a sweet (if chaste) courtship.
Reiner assembles these inevitable events with all the dynamism of a made-for-Hallmark-Channel movie, so saccharine that it borders on sickening. The cinematography is picture-postcard, the townfolk and shopkeepers are all kindly and smiling, and there's even a "special" neighbor to provide cheap laughs with lines like "Sometimes I want to pull my pants down!" Marc Shaiman provides the pushy score, alternating twinkly adorableness with faux blues riffs—for when Freeman is tipping back the bottle, though his much-discussed drinking problem never manifests itself in the actor appearing particularly drunk, or even all that surly.
But the behavior of a true, busted-out whiskey drunk would make a bad fit in the current Reiner universe, which values a sweet disposition and self-consciously "gentle" tone above all else. Gazing upon the filmmaker's latest cotton-candy puff, and comparing it with the nostalgia overdose of Flipped or the geriatric travelogue shenanigans of The Bucket List, it would be easy to jump to the obvious (and clichéd) conclusion that Reiner simply lost his edge somewhere in the mid-'90s. But the filmography disputes that claim; he may have been less afraid of the R rating, but it's not like Spinal Tap or When Harry Met Sally were all that "edgy" to begin with.
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The truth may be crueler than that. Take a look at a key set piece in The Magic of Belle Isle: the birthday party of Madsen's youngest daughter, Flora. There's food and drink, all of the neighbors are there, the decreasingly crusty Monte has made an appearance, and entertainment is provided in the form of a magician/clown who has brought a bouncy house. The clown is the only character in the film remotely resembling a villain, so when he appears, his antagonism is comically overdone: He leers at Madsen, disparages the kids, and unleashes a torrent of insults and profanity when the bouncy house is punctured. Reiner can't get enough of this guy screaming at the kids. He clearly (and poorly) added in more of the clown's taunting during post-production, to a degree that the actor has to talk fast to squeeze it all in. The menacing children's performer is silenced by Monte, who points a gun at the poor sap; the clown runs off like a Keystone villain, and Madsen asks cheerily, "Who wants cake?"
Watching this sequence unfold, you can't imagine how Reiner could have fumbled it more spectacularly. There are rudimentary directing tasks that he's blowing here. While it's seldom fair to let subsequent missteps trigger reappraisals of a filmmaker's previous work, consider this: Nearly all of Reiner's great films could, if one chose, be seen as primarily the work of another, more-talented party. After all, The Princess Bride was adapted for the screen by William Goldman, from his own book; he's also the gifted writer of Butch Cassidy, All the President's Men, and Marathon Man (among many others). Goldman also wrote Misery—from a novel by Stephen King, who wrote the novella that was faithfully adapted into Stand by Me. This Is Spinal Tap was mostly improvised by a cast led by Christopher Guest, who started making great comedies (with much of the same personnel) right around the same time Reiner stopped. As shown by the wave of appreciations following the death screenwriter Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally feels more like Ephron's work that Reiner's. The same idea applies to A Few Good Men and The American President, which we remember primarily for the distinctive Aaron Sorkin dialogue.
So the question may not be what the hell happened to Rob Reiner, but was Rob Reiner ever that good to begin with? It is, granted, a harsh line of inquiry. But in the face of a picture as terrible as The Magic of Belle Isle, it's also a fair one.