THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE"
The Magic of Belle Isle continues Rob Reiner's descent from A-list filmmaker to purveyor of pure trash. The man who once delivered smart entertainment like This is Spinal Tap, A Few Good Men and When Harry Met Sally... has, over the years, devolved into the guy who cranks out maudlin, sentimental sludge like The Bucket List and the insufferable Flipped. Warner Brothers pulled that latter film's planned national release after it opened poorly in limited engagements and earned savage reviews. The Magic of Belle Isle isn't faring much better; it will play a handful of theaters in smaller markets while simultaneously airing on VOD. I suggest avoiding it no matter where it crosses your path.
Morgan Freeman stars as Monte Wildhorn, a disabled, alcoholic, washed-up writer. (No surprise – he still uses a typewriter. Well, of course he does.) Monte moves into a quaint, rural New York town in hopes of getting his writing mojo back. The yard of the home in which he stays shares a border with that of Charlotte O'Neil (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters. Raise your hand if you think that Charlotte and her girls will eventually melt away Monte's gruff, crotchety exterior and help him rediscover his voice. Oh good, I see all your hands are up.
Yes, The Magic of Belle Isle is that kind of movie, which would be okay if there weren't already dozens of other movies about cranky people whose hearts melt after meeting some genuine “down home” folks. The story is formulaic enough, but Reiner and his co-screenwriters, Guy Thomas (Wholly Moses) and Andrew Scheinman (Bait), make sure to underline everything, just in case audiences are somehow incapable of understanding the obvious. There are several moments in which Monte delivers long, rambling monologues to a dog, just so that they don't have to bother dramatizing his internal crisis; they simply have him confess it to an animal instead.
Everything about The Magic of Belle Isle is annoying and precious, including the fact that the characters, despite knowing each other for months, always refer to each other by their surnames (“Hello, Mr. Wildhorn.” “Good morning, Mrs. O'Neil.”). Some sequences are downright embarrassing, especially the one in which Monte fights with a birthday party clown. The bit feels utterly contrived, as though the writers were so desperate for some bit of wackiness that they used the most asinine thing they could think of, even though it takes the audience completely out of the film. As an apparent lover of false sentiment, Reiner tries to manufacture an emotional payoff, but the story telegraphs what it's going to do so early on that you know which heartstrings it will try to tug long before it ever does.
Those things are bad. What's inexcusable is that Belle Isle has the audacity to trot out one of the oldest and most offensive cliches in all of cinema: the mentally challenged guy who serves as comic relief. In this case, the character is Carl (Ash Christian), a young man who admires Monte. Carl wears short pants and long socks, and has his shirt buttoned all the way up to the neck, like something out of Revenge of the Nerds. (I'm surprised he doesn't sport a pocket protector.) The character is repeatedly made to look like a fool, in an effort to earn laughs. He bunny hops around town, and when he tries to ride a rope swing, it naturally breaks, sending him flying into the lake. Making fun of the mentally challenged is such an old-fashioned – and stupid – notion, but that's The Magic of Belle Isle for you.
Stupid. That's a good word to describe this whole endeavor. Reiner has made a film that feels like a relic from another era, but not in a pleasingly retro way. No, The Magic of Belle Isle plays like it's frozen in time. Corny, obvious, and shallow as a puddle, it traffics in outdated stereotypes, overused cliches, and ham-handed emotions. Trust me: your 80 year-old grandmother will love this movie.
( out of four)
The Magic of Belle Isle is rated PG for mild thematic elements and language including some suggestive comments. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.
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