The once and future Meathead, Rob Reiner, had one hell of a directorial run in his early years behind the camera. "This is Spinal Tap," "When Harry Met Sally...," "Misery," "The Princess Bride," "Stand by Me," "A Few Good Men," "The American President” -- from 1984 to 1995, only “North” could be (and roundly was) considered an outright dud.
Alas, that streak gave way to milquetoast efforts like “The Story of Us,” “Alex & Emma,” “Rumor Has It,” “The Bucket List,” and 2010’s “Flipped.” Continuing in that shruggable tradition is his latest, “The Magic of Belle Isle,” which sees Reiner teaming up with several of his previous co-stars for a tale so resolutely inoffensive that it flirts with Hallmark Hall of Fame territory.
Morgan Freeman (“The Bucket List”) plays Monte Wildhorn, a wheelchair-bound widower and alcoholic author who’s dropped off in upstate New York by his nephew (Kenan Thompson) in order to housesit and potentially get the creative juices flowing again.
As he is a curmudgeon, Monte inevitably draws the attention of neighbors like the aloof Al (Fred Willard, “This is Spinal Tap”) and single mom Charlotte (Virginia Madsen, reportedly replacing Annette Bening of “The American President”), whose three rambunctious daughters (including Madeline Carroll, “Flipped”) naturally warm Monte’s heart as he teaches them about the power of imagination and how not to fiddle with their cell phones all the damn time.
Rounding out the ranks is Kevin Pollak (“A Few Good Men”) as Monte’s agent, goading him every once in a while about selling the movie rights to his work.
Together, the ensemble doesn’t feel like a dream-team reunion so much as a series of called-in favors, but everyone is up for the schmaltzy demands of Guy Thomas’ script, which is less interested in character arcs than it is in straight lines connecting mild conflicts to pat resolutions. (The biggest fight around these parts involves a belligerent birthday clown.)
Seemingly softening in his sixties and thus catering to an admittedly oft-overlooked AARP crowd, Reiner's direction feels similarly on autopilot, not as livened here as he was -- comparatively speaking -- by the alternating structure and period setting of “Flipped.” That film’s charms may have been just as patently safe, but at least it felt like a proper movie.
A little Freeman goes a long way, though, and this film’s quaint fundamentals are moderately improved by the veteran actor’s turn. With his hangdog demeanor in full effect, moments both sarcastic and sage breeze right on by, whether he’s directing his barbs at a canine or his advice to a child. Madsen matches him for professionalism in their shared moments, though as a romance begins to spark between the widower and the divorcee, it’s hard not to interpret their two-decade-plus age difference as something of a hurdle.
Monte is the kind of character who prefers a typewriter to a computer, who knows how to fix everyone else’s problems, and who lets other people in just far enough to fix his own. “Belle Isle” is the kind of movie that isn’t remotely interested in surprising its audience, and chances are you’re the type of person who already knows if you’d be okay with that.
“The Magic of Belle Isle” is currently available On Demand through cable providers, Amazon, iTunes and such, and opens in select cities on Friday.