Rob Reiner’s late-career return to the sentimental youth-oriented films of his early days as director is a welcome one for any parent who longs for movies that you can watch with your children. But much of the magic of “Flipped” is missing from his latest, “The Magic of Belle Isle,” a contrived idyll set in a summer resort community in upstate New York.
It’s built around what is meant to be a loveable curmudgeon turn by Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, something he should be able to do in his sleep. But it’s a character with al his rough edges worn off, one with too short a journey to take, thanks to a performance that crosses over into cutesie.
Freeman is Monty Wildhorn, a grumpy Western novelist, confined to a wheelchair, determined to drink himself to death. His nephew (Kenan Thompson) deposits him in a summer rental, where Monty vows to do himself in, or a least ignore the typewriter that the nephew helpfully left behind.
And there’s the movie’s problem. We don’t believe either declaration, not for a moment, not even when Monty slurs his words and is snappish with his new neighbors. Freeman, who can be a jerk, can’t make Monty anything but a sweetheart, thanks to this script and his take on it.
Next door live a newly divorced woman (Virginia Madsen, radiant) and her three daughters, Willow (Madeline Carroll, star of “Flipped”), tiny Flora (Nicolette Pierini) and ten-yearold Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), the kid who wants to be a writer.
She wants coaching from the old grump. And rather than fight her, the old grump agrees. He teaches her about “imagination, the most powerful force ever made for humankind.”
Monty talks like a writer, with plummy, rounded locutions — pronouncements on why he gave up writing.
“Drinking is a very demanding profession. And I can’t hold down two jobs at once.”
But Freeman, one of the greatest actors of his generation, rarely sounds comfortable talking like this. His character’s quotable. “I lost all my good words a long time ago.” Freeman sounds as if he’s reading them from a book.
The script contrives to inject conflict into the relationship between aspiring writer and mentor. The screenwriter injects “Colorful” with a capital “C” supporting characters — the mentally handicapped guy Monty signs up as a “sidekick.”
Those sins would be less important if the script and the actor interpreting it made for a more convincingly bitter old man. Freeman, an actor who can be fierce and disagreeable on screen and in person, is content to turn on the twinkle. Unfortunately, Reiner seems all too happy to let him.
MPAA Rating:PG for mild thematic elements and language including some suggestive comments
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Virginia Madsen, Madeline Carroll, Emma Fuhrmann
Credits: Directed by Rob Reiner, written by Guy Thomas by A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:49