July 8, 2012



THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE:  In Limited Theatrical Release and on VOD – If Nothing Else Is On


Few recent Hollywood career trajectories have been as puzzling as Rob Reiner’s.  From 1984-1992, Reiner directed This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Mercy and A Few Good Men.  That’s not just an all-star streak of entertainment, it represents a remarkable breadth of genres, from rom-com to all the way to horror-thriller.  Reiner seemed to be the best kind of old-fashioned moviemaker, someone who could turn out quality work for decades, like William Wyler or Sydney Pollack in earlier generations.  Reiner followed A Few Good Men with North, but that was OK–he was pretty much owed a flop by then, and he came right back with The American President.  And then–the wheels sort of fell off. The overly earnest Ghosts of Mississippi, the amorphous The Story Of Us, the flat-out terrible Alex & Emma all came in quick succession.  Suddenly Reiner wasn’t on the A-list anymore, and maybe that was OK with him–his Castle Rock Entertainment was a producer of Seinfeld, which was pretty much a money-spewing machine, and Reiner’s political interests are well known.  He was handed Rumor Has It as a contract job, and that made a little money, but the spark seemed to be gone from his work.

In recent years, Reiner has specialized in purveying uncut sentimentality, turning out slick, professional pictures glistening with nostalgia that would be at home on the Hallmark Channel.  Jack Nicholson’s presence made The Bucket List a Christmas hit, but the low-budget Flipped barely registered.  Now he’s entered the world of VOD release (plus a token run in a few big-city theatres) with THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE, a movie set in 2012 that feels like the back half of a 1954 double-feature.

Morgan Freeman stars as Monte Wildhorn, bearer of a colorful history.  He’d been a pro baseball player until he was put by a drunk driver into a wheelchair.  That didn’t defeat him, thanks mostly to the true love of his wife, and he had a second successful career as the writer of a Zane Grey-ish series of western adventure novels.  His wife’s death, however, put him down, and when we meet him, he’s an alcoholic who hasn’t written a word in years (the kind of movie alcoholic, though, who guzzles whiskey and beer yet never shows any ill effects other than comic crankiness).  He’s running out of money, doesn’t want anything to do with the world, and his nephew (Kenan Thmpson, from SNL) arranges for him to have a rent-free summer in the house of a traveling musician, in exchange for taking care of the man’s dog.  The house is on tranquil Belle Isle, where even the height of tourist season only means that the bookstore stays open for extra hours.  Does Monte grudgingly start showing affection to the house dog?  Check.  (Does that dog refuse to play “fetch” until the very end of the movie?  You know it.)  Does the feisty young girl next door, Finnegan O’Neil (Emma Fuhrmann) touch Monte’s heart when she offers him her meager savings for lessons in storytelling?  Of course.  Does Finn’s MILFy mom Charlotte (Virginia Madsen) reawaken feelings in Monte that he thought were long gone?  You’ve got it.  Does Monte miraculously stop drinking overnight?  You’d better believe it.  (No, really–you’d better.)

You could think of Guy Thomas’ script as being something like Grand Torino meets Brigadoon.  (A gun is fired at one point, but harmlessly in the air.)  It wants nothing more than to charm, and parts of it do, the parts that don’t push too hard.  Reiner isn’t in any more rush than the movie’s summer, and he lets Freeman and Madsen twinkle at each other beguilingly (he writes short stories for her kids that are really coded messages of romance to her).   There are occasional mentions of things like texting, but for the most part the movie could just as well refer to Eisenhower being in the White House (you could easily imagine the “shocking” scene of older daughter Willow, played by Madeline Carroll, listening to some of that Elvis music).  The movie doesn’t have any conflict to speak of, and there’s never any doubt how it’ll play out; it practically drowns in its own niceness.

Belle Isle is harmlessly likable, if you don’t mind an inch-thick coating of predictable cliche on your entertainment.  When it ends–happily, of course–everyone involved is a better human being.  And Reiner?  If he didn’t enjoy making movies like this, presumably he wouldn’t be doing them.  The Magic of Belle Isle is less enchanted than sedated, but as with medication, there will be those more than happy to let it put them under.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."