Every last ounce of Rob Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle is a cliché. Every character is a broad-stroke stereotype. And every moment is an aching reminder of the foulest of made-for-television filmmaking. There is some value to this in the form of a family-friendly matinee, but in a cinematic sense this brand of pabulum is almost belligerent in its triteness.
Reiner is capable of some good stuff in the director’s chair, but he also tumbles pretty easily into the prosaic territory on display here. It’s interesting that the actor who brought Meathead to the small screen grew into taking so few chances with his career behind the camera; pictures like The Magic of Belle Isle appear to be the norm, while the wincing magic of Misery shows up only sporadically.
Morgan Freeman stars as Monte Wildhorn, a writer of Western novels who takes up in a lakeside cabin in Belle Isle. He has an alcohol problem, which of course turns him into kind of a curmudgeon. Monte forms a relationship with the family next door, especially the single mother Charlotte (Virginia Madsen) and her middle daughter Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann).
As is usually the case, the family starts to make a difference in the life of Wildhorn. He teaches Finnegan how to write, falls in love with Charlotte and even entertains the youngest daughter Flora (Nicolette Pierini). The oldest daughter Willow (Madeline Caroll) is troubled and a teenager, as these sorts of movies dictate, but even that issue is predictably solved by movie’s end.
Everyone and everything in The Magic of Belle Isle plays out like a fantasy for those with an analgesic worldview and a lust for a kinder, gentler time. There’s the mandatory fear of technology, for instance. Monte still uses a typewriter (although for admittedly passionate reasons) and has a fear of smartphones and computers that many in the movie’s target audience will relate to.
And Willow, with her heavy eyeliner and penchant for the evil city, has every sort of problem that needs to be fixed. Her compulsory ennui is ironically our best window to the film, especially when she retreats the couch after Monte sings a song at a hokey family dinner. In case you’re wondering, yes, the whole clan really does gather ‘round the piano.
This is colour-by-numbers filmmaking. There’s a dog, a “disabled” character (Ash Christian) for comic relief/sympathy and a potty-mouthed clown (Lucas Rooney) who gets to be the beneficiary of an odd encounter with a firearm that is probably considered quite funny by gun nuts. And there’s a convenience store owner named Mahmoud (Debargo Sanyal) to tick off all the diversity boxes.
You may be wondering why someone of Morgan Freeman’s calibre may appear in a movie like this. The fact is that he’s been down this road quite a few times before. His part in An Unfinished Life was similar, only there he benefited from Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez. And for every Shawshank Redemption, there’s a Feast of Love. It kind of comes with the territory.
A Hallmark movie through and through, The Magic of Belle Isle isn’t the least bit magical. It’s a predictable, tacky, fruitless, monotonous, stereotype-driven thing that lacks the performances and interest that’s compelled other comparable movies to greater accomplishment. But it’s also extraordinarily benign, which may or may not go a long way for some.