The Magic of Belle Isle is Rob Reiner doing what Rob Reiner does best. He takes a story that could easily by saccharine and obnoxious and brings reality to it. It is a feel good movie but it earns it.
Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) is a retired author who takes a housesitting job on a small island to be left alone. But the local single mom (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters just can’t help warming his heart. Particularly, the middle girl Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann) spends time with Monte and gets him to start telling her stories, reinvigorating his writing career. Also Monte is paraplegic.
Yeah, I didn’t see that coming either. That’s the first hurdle Reiner, who also cowrote the script, overcomes. Monte is a funny paraplegic. Don’t worry, he’s still cantankerous. He complains, he throws glasses across the room and refuses help. So he certainly doesn’t need our pity, and his clever riffs on Slim Jims in the supermarket speak for his clever mind. He waxes philosophical on the value of a manual typewriter, but only grudgingly because he’s not trying to be Morgan Freeman. He just can’t help it.
Monte is really good with kids though. He provokes them but he doesn’t go over the line. He talks to the girls on an equal level, not condescending. He messes with Finn a little but teaches her how to use her imagination. That’s another red flag, the heartwarming children coming of age. Reiner keeps that real too with a divorce subplot. Also a risk, but older daughter Willow (Madeline Carroll) really wants her dad back and poor Mom has to be the bad guy until she can learn what really happens in grown-up relationships.
Of course the island is full of quirky characters. Carl (Ash Christian) is “special.” He hops around and dances. Again, could have very easily played the sympathy card. Monte actually becomes a good friend to him and brings Carl out of his shell with dignity.
I’ve got to say, Reiner is great with stories about writers. True, Princess Bride and Misery were based on previous works and Alex and Emma was a total failure, but he’s in top form with Monte. Finn finds a copy of Monte’s famous book with the last page missing. A-ha, he’s going to get a chance to rewrite the ending! Luckily they don’t play that angle too hard, it’s just a nice touch. The words he teaches Finn pay off when Finn uses them on him!
There are some heavy-handed moments. A birthday party disaster is overdone. Monte is kind of less fun when he sobers up, but he still speaks in prose. There’s the evil corporate suit who just wants to sell the movie rights to Monte’s books. The divorce issues are a bit on the nose, Dad missing the birthday and all, but I imagine that’s true to many families’ experience. There’s the trusty dog Ringo (Monte renames him spot) but people never seem to complain about movies playing the dog card so why should I?
Overall though Reiner is in the zone. The Magic of Belle Isle has all the makings of a saccharine message movie but he keeps it honest and sincere. I saw the VOD version and the film looks great in HD. And if you like this, please, please watch Flipped. It’s even better.