Shaggily sentimental and a few spells short of enchantment, “The Magic of Belle Isle” rides almost solely on the charms of Morgan Freeman, who manages to conjure up considerable charisma as a grieving alcoholic author whose spiritual salvation arrives via a beautiful divorcee (Virginia Madsen) and her three adorable daughters. Returning to the kind of kid-centric material with which he’s been known to thrive, helmer Rob Reiner nevertheless seems uninspired by the material, and the results are well suited to VOD, where the film has been playing since June 1. A theatrical run kicks off July 1.
Acerbic widower Monte Wildhorn (Freeman) was once an acclaimed writer of Western fiction, but now sits in a wheelchair, nursing his regrets and expressing his bile with polysyllabic panache. He also sucks down sour-mash like a sink. Alcohol is a big part of this guy’s persona, but Freeman’s inherent dignity keeps him from playing the kind of pathetic drunkard Monte really ought to be. So right from the start — when Monte’s nephew Henry (the always wonderful Kenan Thompson) drops his uncle off at the lakeside cabin where he’s going to dogsit for the summer — the movie seems to be holding back.
Yes, Monte’s inebriated admonishments to the dog are amusing, and his overly articulate self-recriminations are droll. But the sense of desperation is lacking, mostly because “The Magic of Belle Isle” is intended to feel good, not necessarily real.
The pic’s tendency to strive for comfort over conflict is particularly unfortunate as regards Madsen’s Charlotte O’Neil and the young actresses who play her daughters: bored teenager Willow (Madeline Carroll), tomboyish Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann) and little Flora (Nicolette Pierini). The girls’ father is MIA, and all three of them have their issues. But it’s Finn who finds her creative/emotional outlet through Monte, who grumpily agrees to be her mentor and help cultivate her budding imagination.
It’s a likable cast (Fred Willard delivers a characteristically wacky cameo), but at the same time, the only really passable acting occurs when Freeman is oncamera alone. This is due largely to the stiffness, contrived conflicts and recycled feel of Guy Thomas’ script, and Reiner’s seeming contentment with purely surface emotions.
The story here is, of course, a redemptive one. While there’s little sense of real romance between Monte and Charlotte (they call each other “Mr. Wildhorn” and “Mrs. O’Neil,” a device that grows precious over time), Monte responds to the love sent in his direction by the O’Neils, and he in turn helps the less fortunate. These include Carl (Ash Christian), the mentally impaired teenager who hops around like a bunny until Monte dubs him “Diego Santana, desperado,” and Carl stops being quite so annoying. It’s the kind of spiritually regenerative stuff that auds have seen a hundred times, and, at certain moments, it can be quite moving. The overall sense, however, is of a film that wants to be morally upright but isn’t above a little shameless manipulation.
Production values are fine, although a more fluid style of editing might have made the proceedings feel a little less formulaic.