The Magic of Belle Isle is a warm, human, feel-good experience about bringing out the best in people, one that brings out Morgan Freeman’s best performance in years. He plays a grizzled old drunk named Monte Wildhorn, a once-revered author of epic western novels suffering from writer’s block who has become so miserable and depressed since losing his wife to cancer that he has retired his career to the inside of a bottle of sour mash whiskey. Cynical, reclusive and partially dependant on a motorized wheelchair, he has come to a small lakeside community in upstate New York to escape from the pressures of responsibility, reality and people—by drinking himself into a stupor. Unfortunately, the summer house his nephew has found for him to hide away in comes equipped with a dependant dog named Ringo the owner left behind, an annoyingly friendly community of covered-dish suppers and a compassionate next-door neighbor named Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen), a single mom with three daughters. Against his best instincts, Monte develops a fondness for them all, especially the 9-year-old infatuated with science fiction who wants to be a writer. Reluctantly, he becomes her mentor, dispensing advice about style, imagination and inspiration (“Most of the time real life doesn’t measure up to what’s in your head”). The smallest and youngest girl loves elephants, so he gets his old typewriter out from under the mothballs and writes a story about a pachyderm named Tony, a story that eventually leads to a series. You already know what’s coming: it turns out that this is the summer when Monte decides to rejoin the human race. After an amalgam of shared experiences—measured gently with brush strokes of sweetness and learning-—at summer’s ends he has not only reactivated his mind and his career, but found his dormant heart as well.
Reunited with Rob Reiner, who directed him in The Bucket List, Mr. Freeman’s unwavering dignity, charm and intelligence are put to good use. Ms. Madsen is wasted, but her no-nonsense honesty is in evidence, too. I admire her unglazed presence and naturalism as well as her deglamorized Hollywood look. In every role, no matter how diverse, she always seems to come from another saner, nicer place than the movies. Mr. Reiner, who has often shown a fondness for earlier, less complex periods in America’s past, is the perfect director to bring out these qualities. The screenplay, which he wrote with Guy Thomas and Andrew Scheinman, sometimes seems hokey, sentimental and totally predictable, but in a film this affectionate these are welcome qualities. The kids text and talk on cell phones, but the whole movie seems to take place in another time—before the plague of reality TV, when people still knew how to take the time out of a busy day to communicate through conversation and feelings. (Monte writes bestsellers and doesn’t even know how to use a computer.) The best thing about the film is the gentle way Mr. Reiner allows his characters to develop until their troubles become part of the human coil. You can quarrel with the smiley-face outcome of every ordeal, but the tenderness and optimism are so powerful and ingratiating that only a viewer with the darkest sensibility will go away untouched. When the waning days of summer signal fall’s impending arrival, you feel like these characters are old friends, and the magic of Belle Isle is self-evident.
THE MAGIC OF BELLE ISLE
Running Time 109 minutes
Written by Guy Thomas, Rob Reiner and Andrew Scheinman
Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Morgan Freeman, Virginia Madsen and Madeline Carroll