In an early scene from The Magic of Belle Isle, irascible writer Monte Wildhorn explains how he has a “great disdain for displays of public sentimentality.”
Wildhorn must not know what movie he’s in. The latest drama from director Rob Reiner is a modestly charming but overly earnest story of redemption that egregiously indulges in schmaltz.
Fortunately, since Reiner has typically been fortunate with his casts during the years, the film has the presence of the venerable Morgan Freeman in the lead role, making the sugar a little easier to swallow.
Freeman plays Monte, a struggling author of Western novels who has turned to alcohol to overcome a series of personal problems, including the death of his wife and his own confinement to a wheelchair. His nephew (Kenan Thompson) puts him in a lakeside cabin for the summer, where Monte gains a new outlook on life when he befriends the family next door, including a divorced single mother (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters. The impressionable middle child, Finn (Emma Fuhrmann), becomes Monte’s protege of sorts in her quest to tap into his power of imagination.
The old-fashioned film succeeds best in its depiction of a quaint village where the lush scenery masks the turmoil facing many of the residents. The imperfect characters in the script by Guy Thomas, and their relationships to one another, feel authentic for the most part, like a combination of loners and fractured families needing a fresh start.
Besides the esteemed Freeman, the film benefits from strong work by Madsen and by newcomer Fuhrmann, who seems too old for her role but shows a precocious flair.
The direction of Reiner is typically slick and stylish, even if the film lacks subtlety and never misses a chance to tug at the heartstrings, gradually drowning amid all of its melodramatic contrivances.
Freeman makes all of this more tolerable than perhaps it should be, even when he basically spends the last half of the film doing nothing more than spouting pearls of wisdom to the various townsfolk.
Yet as The Magic of Belle Isle meanders toward its predictable conclusion, it’s disheartening to realize that a movie that spends much of its time touting the virtues of an active imagination puts so little of that preaching into practice.
Rated PG, 109 minutes.