Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
"The Magic of Belle Isle" (109 minutes) is available via iTunes, Amazon, Comcast, DirecTV, VUDU and other outlets. A limited theatrical release begins July 1.
Rob Reiner's "The Magic of Belle Isle" is an Easy Button of a film, as generic and conventional as its title. If you ever wondered what a Hallmark Channel original movie would be like if you threw some A-list talent at it -- namely Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen instead of, say, Jeffrey Nordling and Kristy Swanson -- here's your answer.
Freeman stars as Monte Wildhorn, an alcoholic in a wheelchair and "writer (of westerns) nobody reads." His books, once popular, are now out of print. Monte's nephew (Keenan Thompson) deposits him in the idyllic lakeside town of Belle Isle to housesit. Nephew's ulterior motive, of course, is that he will be inspired to stop drinking and start writing again, but the embittered Monte is a hard case. "Toss it in the garbage," he says of his typewriter. "She's a black-hearted whore, and I'm done with her."
So what will it take to turn this curmudgeon into a softie? Guy Thomas' simplistic script leaves nothing to chance. How about saddling Monte with a lazy old dog named Ringo (yes, Ringo) that has a penchant for licking itself? No? Well then, how about introducing a single mother (Madsen) who is going through a divorce with three -- count 'em -- daughters: one adorable, one precocious, and one sullen? Still not enough? Well then how about adding to the mix a mentally challenged boy who hops around the neighborhood and whom Monte takes under his wing as his "sidekick?"
Monte's transformation does not exactly require a spoiler alert (especially if you see the trailer), but Freeman, the consummate character actor, can wring the bathos out of such dialogue as "That lady has a way of making me sit taller in the saddle."
W. C. Fields is credited with the quote that adult actors should never work with children or dogs. "The Magic of Belle Isle" puts these scene-stealers on notice: They should think twice about working with Morgan Freeman. But Reiner has always worked wonders with child actors, and Emma Fuhrmann, especially, as middle daughter Finnegan (yes, Finnegan), admirably holds her own in her pivotal scenes in which she asks Monte teach her how to write stories.
Screenwriter Thomas' lone big-screen credit was the excruciating 1980 comedy "Wholly Moses!" To have Reiner agree to direct this modest addition to the "summer that changed our lives" genre, must have been the answer to a prayer. Reiner, like Garry Marshall, but without the one-liner gag reflex, is an old-school crowd-pleaser who knows how to get the laugh and jerk the tear, sometimes shamelessly. At one point, Monte, being kissed in a dream, awakens to that dog licking his face.
Reiner gets a little help from friends and former collaborators. In addition to Freeman ("The Bucket List") and Madsen ("Ghosts of Mississippi"), the cast includes Madeline Carroll (the underseen "Flipped") as Madsen's oldest daughter, Willow (yes, Willow). Kevin Pollack ("A Few Good Men," the short-lived TV series, "Morton & Hayes") as Monte's agent, who arrives in the third act with a proposal that could rescue Monty from obscurity, and Fred Willard as a glad-handing neighbor who is a fan of Monte's books.
Tony-winner and Oscar-nominated composer Marc Shaiman, in his ninth film with Reiner, wrote the banal score which features the requisite tinkling piano that signals life sea-changes in the offing. For the boomers ("Belle Island's" likeliest visitors), he includes a gratuitous Beach Boys classic, "Don't Worry Baby."
"The Magic of Belle Isle" is getting an on-demand video release before a limited theatrical run in July, reflecting a belief that a small scale film like this -- driven by character and actual conversation -- has a better chance of finding its audience in the comfort of home than in theatres during the sound and fury and 3D of the summer movie season. "Belle Isle" is all about the comforts of home and its simplest of pleasures may be best appreciated within the confines of a smaller screen.
Freeman, as ever, only makes it look simple. His sage voice is this film's sole special effect, as witness his oration at a neighbor's funeral, his mentoring of Finnegan to use her imagination to "see what isn't there," and his description of how Madsen's character walks into a room. In a summer of superheroes, he emerges as a true wizard. His performance is the real magic of "Belle Isle."
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