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Shamelessly schmaltzy and predictable from first moment to last, Rob Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle nonetheless manages to conjure a certain spell. It’s partly because of its gorgeous setting, played by the picturesque hamlet of Greenwood Lake, New York. But the real credit goes to Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen, who embody their lead roles with the sort of quiet grace and maturity that is generally absent from the youth-obsessed fare currently filling multiplexes.
Freeman plays the evocatively named Monte Wildhorn, a once successful author of western adventure novels who’s become a bitter recluse after the death of his wife and his confinement to a wheelchair as a result of a car accident involving a drunk driver. House and dog sitting for his amiable nephew (Kenan Thompson), he’s determined to spend his summer drinking instead of writing, despite the looming presence of the vintage typewriter on which he wrote his popular books.
But all that begins to change when he meets the family next door, consisting of gorgeous middle-aged divorcee Charlotte (Madsen) and her adorable young daughters, including nine-year old aspiring writer Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), who quickly looks to him as a mentor.
Monte, the sort of determined curmudgeon who comments, “Drinking is a demanding profession, and I can’t hold two jobs at once,” is a stock character, to be sure. But the ever-reliable Freeman finds enough grace notes and subtle humor to make palatable his character’s predictable transformation into lovability. And the courtly, vaguely romantic relationship that develops between Monte and the Beethoven-playing Charlotte is conveyed with a subtle poignancy, especially in a beautifully rendered dream sequence in which Monte rises from his wheelchair to dance a tender waltz.
Less fortuitous are the egregious subplot involving Monte’s friendship with a mentally challenged young man (Ash Christian) who continually hops around like a rabbit and such cheap running gags as his dog’s constant crotch-licking.
Technical elements are up to Reiner’s usual polished level, with Reed Morano’s lensing reeking of summery nostalgia and Marc Shaiman’s musical score providing the requisite emotional cues.
Opened: July 7 (Magnolia Pictures).
Production: Castle Rock Entertainment, Voltage Pictures.
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Virginia Madsen, Madeline Carroll, Emma Fuhrmann, Nicolette Pierini, Kenan Thompson, Fred Willard, Kevin Pollak, Ash Christian.
Director: Rob Reiner.
Screenwriter: Guy Thomas
Producers: Rob Reiner, Alan Greisman, Lori McCreary, Salli Newman, David Valdes.
Executive producers: Liz Glotzer, Jared Goldman, Martin Shafer.
Director of photography: Reed Morano.
Editor: Dorian Harris.
Music: Marc Shaiman.
Production design: Tom Lisowski.
Costume designer: Shawn-Holly Cookson.
Rated PG, 109 min.
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