One of the great concurrent pleasures of watching movies by directors genuinely sustaining their craft through the decades – and not in it for the money and fame – is both anticipating and and experiencing the surprise of how their work transforms and ripens through time. And few come more to mind than actor/filmmaker Rob Reiner. Yes, Meathead has come a long way baby, from his self-deprecating days on All in the Family, to the no less self-deprecating but seamlessly eloquent, The Magic Of Belle Isle.
Likely on some level autobiographical, The Magic Of Belle Isle delves into the life of Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman), a popular writer of Western fiction who has more recently stumbled into writer’s block. Wildhorn is also permanently confined to a wheelchair following an accident, and a widower unreconciled to his grief who finds quick fix comfort in alcoholism.
Encouraged by a doting nephew (Kenan Thompson) to retreat to the rustic lakeside getaway of the title to heal his soul and hopefully spark his imagination again, Wildhorn reluctantly agrees but holds firmly to his bitterness and chronic depression. Until, that is, an encounter with a neighboring family of three young daughters and their struggling divorced mom, Charlotte (Virginia Madsen).
At first simply disgruntled by the surrounding community, including prying local fans of his writing disturbing his hermetic existence, Wildhorn forms an unusual poetic bond with Charlotte’s preteen daughter, Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann). Finnegan is enamored of Wildhorn’s creative gift in a way that only a child’s very differently perceived notion of the world could be, and that mystified admiration alternately annoys and intrigues him.
Which is essentially Finnegan’s offer to pay him the few dollars and change she has saved up, if he will reveal to the possibly aspiring writer herself the secret of where stories come from. And his mystical reply laced with wonderment, as astonishing for the audience as for this irrepressibly curious child, is that you must look around you and tell me what you don’t see.
Which is not to say that this solemn tale is not without moments of tenderly wrought humor. As when the relentlessly resistant Wildhorn, his spirit slowly and gently lifted from consuming darkness, declares that thoughts of suicide are ‘temporarily postponed’ for a dinner invitation from the quirky family. And, owing much of the film’s always truthful, naked emotion, to the depth and richness of Freeman’s performance, and of Madsen’s as well.
Along with Rob Reiner’s own remarkable gift as a writer, that he has conveyed through the words of this never quite broken man. As for instance Wildhorn’s reply as to why he stubbornly continues to use an old school typewriter – and which could just as easily be said about this movie, even if it was scripted on a cumputer: ‘I like the way the words bite into the page, and the sense that there’s a human being there.’
Trailer of The Magic of Belle Isle: