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Has Rob Reiner Regained His “Magic”?

June 3, 2012

As if hellbent on proving he was not a Meathead, Rob Reiner tore off an almost unprecedented critical and commercial hot streak as a filmmaker. Straight out of the gate, he made This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery and A Few Good Men, which finally earned his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Picture. He seemed like a sure thing, then it all started to go South with North. (Don’t remember it? You’re lucky.)

After a brief comeback with The American President, followed by the disappointing Ghosts of Mississippi, Reiner fell into a decade-and-a-half-long slump, turning out dreck like Alex and Emma, Rumor Has It… and The Story of Us.  He seemed to be channeling Meathead again, focusing more on political causes than his films. But a few years ago, Reiner rediscovered the commercial touch with the geezer hit The Bucket List, then followed it up with his best film in ages, the overlooked, underrated ’50s coming-of-age romance Flipped. Now he’s combined those two films, casting Bucket‘s deservedly beloved Morgan Freeman in another heartwarming rite-of-passage love story, The Magic of Belle Isle.

Don’t be put off by the sappy-sounding title. Freeman’s got a real edge as Monte Wildhorn, an alcoholic, paraplegic Western novelist who relocates to a remote island cottage with the stated intent of committing suicide. He’s slowly redeemed by the relationships he develops with the single mom next door (Virginia Madsen, in full Sideways discarded-beauty mode) and her three daughters, played by Flipped‘s Madeline Carroll and remarkable newcomers Emma Fuhrmann and Nicolette Pierini.

Elements of Guy Thomas’ script could easily devolve into sloppy sentimentality: Freeman spends many scenes talking to an adorable Labrador Retriever, and he befriends a “special” neighbor who likes to hop around the island like a bunny. But Freeman’s effortlessly flawless performance and Reiner’s admirably restrained direction render such devices charming rather than cheesy. The director also smartly employs SNL‘s Kenan Thompson and former collaborators Fred Willard (Spinal Tap) and Kevin Pollak (A Few Good Men) to add spiky comic relief.

Like so many of the better smaller films this summer (Hide Away, The Samaritan), The Magic of Belle Isle is already available On Demand as well as on platforms like Amazon’s Instant Video. It’ll hit theaters next month, but no matter what size screen you see it on, it’ll make you glad you stood by Rob Reiner.

What’s your favorite Rob Reiner flick? C’mon, how can it not be The Princess Bride?

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