Rob Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle tells the story of a man who regains the will to live after entering the lives of a single mom and her three daughters. This is the kind of movie that divides audiences into two basic categories: Those that like sentimental dramas, and those that don’t. I’m sure my opening description alone is enough for you to determine which category you fall into. For my money, the film is simple, well-intentioned, and good-hearted – flawed, yet protected and ultimately redeemed by its belief in second chances. Given the hardships of reality, the last thing we need is a movie that reminds us of them. What we really need is a movie that gives us reason to hope for something better. You may think I’m naïve, although I prefer to think of myself as open to possibilities.
The man at the center of the story is Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman). As a young man, his athletic prospects were shattered when an accident robbed him of his ability to walk. He would go on to make a name for himself as a writer of western fiction, only to give up on it following the death of his beloved wife. Wheelchair bound, in his golden years, and having lost everything including his faith, he now spends his days downing bottles of alcohol and making acerbic remarks. An easy target is his nephew, Henry (Kenan Thompson), who made arrangements for Monte to housesit a small house during the summer in a quiet upstate New York lakeside town. Part of this involves taking care of an old dog, whose refusal to fetch a ball will be a running gag throughout the entire film.
In due time, Monte meets his next-door neighbor, the soon-to-be-divorced Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen), and her three daughters. There’s the rebellious teenager, Willow (Madeline Carroll), who really just wants to spend time with her unseen father. There’s the little one, Flora (Nicolette Pierini), whose main purpose is to look adorable. Finally, there’s the middle child, Finnegan, a.k.a. Finn (Emma Fuhrmann), a tomboy who has a flair for making up outlandish stories and testing them on Flora. Despite her obvious gift, she’s under the impression that she doesn’t know how to be a writer, and so she appeals to Monte to be her mentor. Monte, of course, will initially come off as cantankerous before taking a liking to Finn, admiring her curiosity and determination.
Several things come of this initial encounter. Firstly, Monte and Charlotte take the first steps towards falling in love. Secondly, he’s invited to attend a memorial service for a man he never met and is asked by the town mayor (Fred Willard) to deliver an already-written eulogy. This could, perhaps, be a lighthearted jab at Freeman’s secondary career as a voiceover artist, but never mind. Thirdly, Finn will venture to Belle Isle, a tiny island in the middle of the lake, and retrieve a lunchbox full of her mother’s school-age love letters. Monte will also befriend, as only he can, a mentally challenged man named Carl (Ash Christian), who hops rather than walks from one point to another. Finally, he will be inspired to start writing again; although his new stories are structurally and grammatically appropriate for Flora, it’s obvious that the subtexts are aimed squarely at Charlotte.
Some time is reserved for a subplot involving Monte’s agent, the delightfully named Joe Viola (Kevin Pollack), who’s eager to get his client back in the game. More specifically, he wants Monte to sell the rights to one of his books to Hollywood. Repeated phone calls go unreturned for obvious reasons, and so Viola is forced to drop by unannounced. I can’t help but wonder how necessary this aspect of the story was, given the fact that the real focus is the relationship Monte shares with Charlotte and Finn. However, I do think it would have worked had it been separated from The Magic of Belle Isle and expanded into its own feature-length film, one a little less emotional and family-friendly.
I grant you that the story is contrived and that specific characters, most notably Carl, are included primarily as foils for Monte as he undergoes emotional rehabilitation. What saves it, by my standards, was the fact that there was obviously no malicious intent on the part of Reiner or Guy Thomas, the screenwriter. The only questionable aspect of The Magic of Belle Isle is Monte educating Finn on how to be a writer. It’s clear right from the start that she already knows what she’s doing; to have her approach him and ask for guidance was forced and implausible. Apart from that, the film is no more or less that what it is, namely a harmless, feel-good story. While it may not win a spot on the shelf next to Reiner’s more substantial films, it at least won’t be mentioned in the same sentence with the year’s worst films.
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