Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle Finds Another Formula for Success

Summertime is box office heaven for major film studios. Most try to capitalize on school-free kids by churning out one action film after another or animated films. And that strategy is paying off this summer. Just look at the box office receipts from The Avengers, Men in Black 3, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Snow White and the Huntsmen. The one exception this summer being Rock of Ages; but with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, and Mary J. Blige in the cast, how can you go wrong.

Rob Reiner has opted for a different appeal in The Magic of Belle Isle. There’s no superhero, no cgi-wonderworks. Reiner instead has opted for a very good script, great casting, and Academy Award‒winning Morgan Freeman. This simple story of redemption, imagination and community contains ingredients that use to attract significant audiences to movie theaters, and in spite of the pyrotechnical feats that satisfies the ever-thirsty palettes of summer movie goers, there is still room for this type of film.

Famous Western novel writer Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) struggles finding his passion for writing while dealing with alcoholism and a paralyzing disability. Though confined to a wheelchair, Wildhorn’s nephew (Kenan Thompson) believes there is still hope and arranges a housesitting and dog keeping job for Monte in a small lakeside community. Next door, divorced mom Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) and her three kids attempt to lift Monte’s spirits and reconnect him with his writing muse. Of the three kids, preteen Flora (Nicolette Pierini) has the most influence on Wildhorn’s cantankerous mood and gets him to consider writing again after asking him to be her writing mentor.

Reiner has taken a post-racial approach to this film. Though Morgan is one of the few African American in the small lakeside enclave of mostly white residents, there are no racial acknowledgement or references in the film. And though this idyllic setting could promote racial tolerance, in the real world we are not quite there yet. That said; the Magic of Belle Isle is no less charming. And for a feel-good summer movie, there is lots of genuine charm and good performances.

As Monte Wildhorn, Morgan Freeman does not allow the character’s grumpiness to overwhelm the nuance and arc of his performance. His masterful craftsmanship facilitates unearthing the polarity of Wildhorn; the good and the bad; the hopeful and the defeated; the strength and the weakness. And even the burgeoning romance between Madsen and Freeman characters though dubious, Freeman’s sincerity makes the relationship almost believable.

Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen in “The Magic of Belle Isle.” Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Virginia Madsen as Charlotte brings a levity and maturity to a film that just could have been another movie about the redemptive power of a child’s imagination. Though her part could have been meatier, Madsen makes a lot out of what she’s been given.

In The Magic of Belle Isle, director Rob Reiner proves that summer movies can be entertaining without a lot of bells and whistles. Good actors are key, but plot and good direction completes the puzzle.

The Magic of Belle Isle is released by Magnolia Pictures and comes out in limited release on July 6.

—William S. Gooch

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