What gives, Rob Reiner? The filmmaker has had a long, successful run behind the camera, with 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap,” 1986’s “Stand by Me,” 1987’s “The Princess Bride,” 1989’s “When Harry Met Sallyâ€¦,” 1990’s “Misery,” 1992’s “A Few Good Men,” 1995’s “The American President,” until hitting a dry spell with 2003’s “Alex & Emma.” Now, following 2010’s disarmingly old-fashioned “Flipped,” which wore its heart on its sleeve, settling in to watch a new movie from Reiner is like snuggling in a warm, cozy blanket, while listening to familiar golden oldies â€” you know it’s corny and completely lacking in subtlety, but you might fall under its warm spell anyway. As earnest and saccharine as a Hallmark card, “The Magic of Belle Isle” is inoffensive and well-meaning without being very good. The lead character, played by Morgan Freeman, has a disdain for sentimentality, but the film pours it on, like extra sugar on a bowl of Fruit Loops.
Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) is a self-pitying, cantankerous, wheelchair-bound author, known for his western paperbacks, moves to an idyllic lakeside town in upstate New York. Since his wife’s death, he is content to spend his days drinking, but by his nephew (Kenan Thompson) and literary agent (Kevin Pollak), he is forced to write again. Next door is Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen), a divorced mother, and her three daughters, the petulant Willow (Madeline Carroll), the precocious Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), and the gullible Flora (Nicolette Pierini). Finnegan, the eager middle child, immediately takes a shine to the grumpy Mr. Wildhorn and asks him to get her imaginative juices flowing (with the bribe of $34.18), as he simultaneously returns to writing and finds more value in life.
Eager to please and comfort, “The Magic of Belle Isle” isn’t without some sweet moments, but a deep catharsis is smothered by schmaltzy, feel-goody formula. The writing takes the lazy, obvious shorthand very often (including dialogue like “She didn’t leave you, she had cancer!”), and in the long run, Guy Thomas’ screenplay truncates character arcs for pat resolutions. Naturally, the local crank is redeemed by becoming the leader of the small-town communal, complete with a cute yellow lab named Ringo that he renames Spot and a bunny-hopping, mentally challenged neighbor. Also, Monte can’t resist Charlotte, who plays soothing Beethoven on the piano when he sleeps.
Having been half of the draw to see Reiner’s “The Bucket List,” Freeman’s wise presence is almost enough. (Just close your eyes to take a nap and his voice is like a lullaby.) Though playing a curmudgeon, the veteran actor’s Monte is really an erudite gentleman. As Charlotte, a de-glammed Madsen is still lovely and radiant at 50. Given Reiner’s restraint with Monte and Charlotte’s friendship, bonded by both parties’ ador for books and music, it refrains from being strange or icky, but any mutual romantic feelings betwen them is hard to digest. Until the end when they ditch the formality, Charlotte calls Monte “Mr. Wildhorn” over and over that it could become a drinking game. The real standout is Fuhurmann, who’s a natural, adorable find as Finnegan without mugging like a cutesy kid-actor. But Carroll, from Reiner’s “Flipped,” mostly has to play a clichÃ©â€”a rebellious, cell-dependent teen who gives her mom griefâ€”until finding Mom’s old “Happy Days” lunchbox with her diary inside (don’t ask).
Though not a bad film nor director Reiner’s worst (remember 1994’s “North”?), “The Magic of Belle Isle” hasn’t enough conflict or much at stake to give a thought to any of it. We’re supposed to believe that it merely takes a single mom and her three girls for Monte to give up his misanthropy and the bottle, and fix his writing block. That would be all fine and dandy if it felt more authentic and not so hokey and manipulative. Reiner stated that at his age, he wants to keep making life-affirming stories, but his latest only affirms that sentimentality dilutes true emotion.
In select theaters, and available on Video-On-Demand and iTunes!
109 min., rated PG.