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Review: The Magic of Belle Isle (2012)

The Magic of Belle Isle (2012)

Directed by: Rob Reiner

Premise: A wheel chair bound writer (Morgan Freeman) spends his summer in a rural community and connects with a single mother (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters.

What Works: The Magic of Belle Isle is intended to be a sweet movie, the kind of picture to be watched on a rainy afternoon with your grandmother, and as that it is passable. The picture is funny without being crude and it deals with heartbreak and substance abuse while avoiding the deeper underlying issues. The laughs are not exactly sidesplitting but the script is witty enough to hold the viewer’s attention. This is an example of a picture that is uplifted and in many respects saved by a solid cast. The material is below the talents of actors Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen but they commit to it and deliver watchable performances. Freeman gets the best lines and the verbose dialogue suits his delivery style even though it overwhelms some of the other actors. Also well cast are Madeline Carroll, Emma Fuhrmann, and Nicolette Pierini as the three daughters. Of the three, Fuhrmann’s character is given the most to do and she does a nice job with the material, sharing the screen with Freeman without being drowned out by his presence. 

What Doesn’t: The Magic of Belle Isle has the consistency of an afterschool special. The film is so focused on not offending anyone that it comes across as shallow and compromised. What is strange about The Magic of Belle Isle is that although the film is sentimental it can barely be labeled that way because at no point does it actually go for the big tear jerker moments. The movie so staid, never delving into the characters’ traumas and struggles, that it comes across as halfhearted. The filmmaker’s avoidance of meaningful conflict bedevils the storytelling and the performances by the actors. Freeman and Madsen acquit themselves but there just isn’t much for either of them to do. Freeman in particular suffers because his character is established as a stereotypical alcoholic and misanthropic writer who rediscovers his love of story and people through a good woman and her children. It is a tired formula seen in pictures as varied as The Lost Weekend, As Good As It Gets, and Leaving Las Vegas. Although Freeman’s character fits the profile there is no edge to his bitterness and his change from the beginning of the film to the end does not come from any revelation or experience but just manifests as a standard issue Hollywood redemption. As part of his transformation, Freeman’s character falls for Madsen’s but their romance is unbelievable. The two don’t really do anything for each other that would lead them to fall in love and their romantic scenes come across as forced and hokey. Much of the rest of The Magic of Belle Isle is similarly awkward. One of the major subplots of the film is a divorce between Madsen’s character and her off-screen husband. This creates tension between the mother and her children, especially the oldest played by Madeline Carroll, but like the film’s dealings with alcoholism there are no meaningful plot beats or crisis points, just miraculous changes in disposition that end the conflict before it even gets started. The picture also has quite a few supporting characters that are introduced but then dropped and never figure into the story in a meaningful way. Of these, a mentally handicapped young man played by Ash Christian is especially ill advised. His performance comes across more like an imitation of mental deficiency than an earnest portrayal of it and his character is distracting and detrimental to the film.

Bottom Line: The Magic of Belle Isle is inoffensive fluff. The actors do what they can with the material but the picture is so haphazard and even lazy in its storytelling that this is the kind of movie that is forgettable within hours of viewing it.

Episode: #397 (July 22, 2012)