Explaining to future generations why Rob Reiner was once one of Hollywood’s top directors was never going to be easy, but as his latter-day output worsens, the fact that he once helmed a Best Picture nominee (1992’s A Few Good Men) starts to seem like a form of temporary insanity, or a remnant from an eradicated timeline. There’s certainly nothing in The Magic Of Belle Isle to suggest its director was ever more than a hack, regurgitating worn-out scenarios at the bottom edge of competence.
Clumsily announcing its themes with a credit sequence where the camera drives down the streets of an idyllic small town to the accompaniment of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the movie finally alights on Morgan Freeman’s washed-up writer, a binge-drinking Western novelist whose muse abandoned him when his wife died some years ago. Ostensibly to focus his concentration, more realistically to separate himself from anyone who might expects anything of him, Freeman agrees to housesit for the summer, moving in next to a comely divorcée (Virginia Madsen) with three spirited daughters. Guy Thomas’ script dictates a romantic attraction between them (their age difference is never mentioned, of course), but Freeman treats Madsen no differently than her daughters, laying on the avuncular charm without a hint of grown-up interest.
The girls are fascinated with their cranky, wheelchair-bound neighbor, whose dormant gift for writing seems to them just shy of magic. “Tell me where stories come from,” says eldest daughter Madeline Carroll, in a line whose wincing sentimentality is made worse by its insincerity. Magic has pretensions to literacy, or at least that’s the only explanation for why Freeman and Madsen talk in courtly, elongated sentences as if they’re pitching 19th-century woo, but the great novels rarely bare their heroes’ innermost sentiments by having them lay periodic monologues on a subtext-impaired yellow Labrador. Even when Freeman isn’t speaking to himself, there’s always someone around for him to explain the obvious to, be it a small child or a retarded teenager (Ash Christian) who’s stuck in a perpetual bunny hop until Freeman gifts him with the alter ego of a Wild West desperado.
A charitable reading of The Magic Of Belle Isle would posit Freeman as a stand-in for Reiner himself, a once-respected author who “lost all my good words a long time ago.” But for a movie that spends so much time extolling the virtues of the imagination to show so little of its own is more than ironic—it’s offensive.