½* (out of four)
A PG-rated family drama called “The Magic of Belle Isle” automatically implies a high level of shameless earnestness. Dialogue like “There's more to life than the way you're livin' it” or “I want to know where stories come from” isn't just firing syrupy arrows at undemanding hearts, however. It's crafting a movie that's probably only in theaters because ABC Family said, “Sorry, this is a little hokey for us.”
Good intentions or not, the latest and worst treacly mush from formerly great director Rob Reiner (“Flipped,” “The Bucket List,” “When Harry Met Sally”) can't even hide behind narrative innocence. “The Magic of Belle Isle” incorporates big-ticket emotional triggers like divorce, alcoholism, an elderly man who can't walk and a young man with special needs and then offensively underplays the various challenges of all of them. Former author and current curmudgeon Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) may prefer pounding PBRs or something harder to making conversation with the nephew (Kenan Thompson) who sets him up rent-free in a small town that sells his work for 35 cents. Yet Monte's longtime boozing never results in any significant consequences, and Freeman fumbles with a character so inconsistent that one minute he's grumbling and borderline suicidal and the next he's kindly hitting on women on the bus.
Written by Guy Thomas, “The Magic of Belle Isle” panders while attempting to show how Monte gets his groove back thanks to the warmth of his neighbors, Mrs. Charlotte O'Neil (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters. That doesn't mean practically every moment has to drip with down-home goop like Monte telling Charlotte's 9-year-old daughter Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), “You can tell a lot about a person's character by the condition of their pocketknife.” That's just one of many lines that belongs sewn on a throw pillow, not on a big screen.
The unconvincingly paired Monte and Charlotte call each other Mr. Wildhorn and Mrs. O'Neil so many times that you'll want to scream at them to drop the needless formality, which the cheaply sentimental “Belle Isle” uses where the actual, conceptualized charm should be. That might have worked had anyone thought to capture what makes this place so special, or any different from any other small community in the country.
In addition to Monte bellowing “She's a black-hearted whore and I'm done with her” about his typewriter and saying “I couldn't agree more” to the dog constantly attending to his own crotch, we also get constant over-praising of Charlotte's beauty--sorry, but casting matters if you're going to write it that way--and a patronizing, superficial attitude toward Carl (Ash Christian), the boy with special needs. Madsen and Freeman's performances both suggest they were told that a twinkle would be added to their eyes digitally but to lay it on thick anyway. They don't generate one honest spark or surprise, other than when Monte pulls a gun on a grumpy clown at Charlotte's youngest daughter's birthday party.
That's a disturbing lesson for both children learning how to deal with jerks and clowns who will think twice the next time they freak out over a popped bouncy castle.
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