Conflict is an essential ingredient of drama. If characters don’t have something to react against, it doesn’t matter how well-drawn they are or how good their dialogue is, because they’re just not going to have much to do. While the characters are often flat and one-dimensional and the dialogue is frequently a fistful of cliches, the biggest problem with Rob Reiner’s latest directorial effort, The Magic of Belle Isle, is that hardly anyone has anything to worry about or react to -- the few moments of conflict tend to fade away of their own accord, and most of this movie consists of folks slowly pondering their circumstances during a lovely summer by the lake. The Magic of Belle Isle looks like a nice way to spend the warmer months, but it doesn’t make for much of a movie.
The film opens with Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) being taken to a cottage in an upscale lakeside community with his nephew (Kenan Thompson). Monte is a writer who uses a wheelchair and is best known for a series of Western novels he wrote in the 1960s and ’70s; the words dried up after cancer claimed his wife, and these days he’s a cranky elderly man who wants to drink and be left alone. Monte’s nephew thinks the change of scenery will do him good, but he prefers to climb into a bottle of whiskey and sulk until he meets the family next door. Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) is an attractive woman who has moved to her family’s cottage while she waits out the final stages of her divorce. She is staying with her three daughters, predictably petulant teenager Willow (Madeline Carroll), high-spirited nine-year-old Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), and curious seven-year-old Flora (Nicolette Pierini).
Finnegan is fascinated by the fact that Monte is a writer, and she wants him to teach her how to invent stories. Monte agrees, grudgingly at first, but he soon grows to enjoy his daily chats with the girl as he becomes reacquainted with the notion of creating. When Monte is invited over for dinner one night, he discovers he quite likes Finnegan’s mother as well and enjoys hearing her play the piano. After he learns that Flora likes elephants, he does something he hasn’t done in years -- he writes her a story, a short piece about an elephant who is close friends with a mouse. Flora is delighted and Charlotte is moved by the gesture, but Finnegan is upset that Monte is finally creating again but has no story ideas for her.
The Magic of Belle Isle has a narrative, but it’s easy to forget that while you’re watching the movie; the picture ambles along with the cheerful lack of purpose of a beautiful summer day, and even when the characters have problems and are forced to confront them, they never seem to amount to much and tend to blow over moments later. The screenplay (by Reiner, Guy Thomas, and Andrew Scheinman) doesn’t give the characters a great deal of depth, and the dialogue often sounds uncomfortably familiar even if you haven’t heard it before. Watching this film is like watching home movies of someone else’s restful vacation: pleasant but not terribly interesting. Morgan Freeman carries the picture as Monte, and he invests his high-flown dialogue with a dignity and palate of colors that makes it quite pleasant, but his performance seems to put a lot of fancy wrapping on a package that’s ultimately empty. Virginia Madsen is charming and solid as Mrs. O’Neil (as Monte usually addresses her), but the screenplay gives her so little backstory and so little to do that she spends the bulk of her time looking wistfully into the middle distance and tending to her garden; she does both very well, but they hardly represent a challenge to an actor. And while the movie struggles to deal with the romantic chemistry between Freeman and Madsen (and they do play off each other quite well), Reiner and his screenwriters ultimately don’t know what to do with the awkward prospect of a woman in her mid-forties and a man in a wheelchair who (as played) seems to be at least twenty years older than her hooking up, and after dancing around the notion for a while, they drop it without truly resolving it. Despite the fine performances by Freeman and Madsen, The Magic of Belle Isle is an empty-headed misfire on nearly every level, playing like a bigger-budget version of a slapped-together made-for-TV movie, and while two months on vacation at a lake with nothing much to do may seem like bliss in real life, watching the same thing for 109 minutes is another matter entirely. leave a comment --Mark Deming