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The Essentials: The Films Of Rob Reiner (Before He Forgot How To Direct Movies)

The Essentials: The Films Of Rob Reiner (Before He Forgot How To Direct Movies)

Maybe it’s just a particular hang-up of this writer, but we find one of cinema’s greatest mysteries to be the question of what happened to Rob Reiner. The sitcom star and son of the great Carl Reiner (“Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “The Jerk“) became a film director in the early 1980s and had an extraordinary, almost unmatched run across the next eight years, helming seven diverse and hugely acclaimed films that have become enshrined as some of the finest of their era. Few filmmakers, at least within the mainstream, can make a claim to a consecutive string like it.

And then, in the early 1990s, Reiner appeared to be replaced by some kind of a pod person. Where his helming was once assured, tonally perfect and displaying a terrific sense for casting, the exact opposite became true, with a string of films that were forgettable at best, and unwatchable at worst. It’s hard to say what happened — the complacency of succcess, a renewed focus on his (obviously laudable) political activism, some kind of head injury. But a director who’d been a seal of quality throughout the 1980s had, by the 21st century, become a major warning sign.

You’re probably not aware, because few are, but Reiner has a new film opening in theaters this weekend; “The Magic of Belle Isle,” which stars Morgan Freeman as a wheelchair-bound alcoholic author romancing single mother Virginia Madsen. We’ve not seen it ourselves, but the word is that it’s far from a return to form — the AV Club write in their review that “there’s certainly nothing in ‘The Magic Of Belle Isle’ to suggest its director was ever more than a hack, regurgitating worn-out scenarios at the bottom edge of competence.” But it seemed to be a good excuse to return to the days when Reiner was one of Hollywood’s most diverse and reliable directors, and examine that original seven-film run, before things inexplicably went to pot. Check it out below. Do you have an explanation for what happened to Reiner? Do you want to stand up and defend the likes of “North” or “Alex & Emma“? Feel free to weigh let us know in the comments section.

“This Is Spinal Tap” (1984)
As the son of legendary comic and writer-director Carl Reiner, and a comedy writer and performer himself who came to fame as Meathead on “All In The Family,” it made sense that Reiner’s directorial debut would be on the funnier end of the spectrum. But only an optimistic fool would have guessed that he’d begin by directing, co-writing and starring in one of the funniest films ever made. Because that’s exactly what “This Is Spinal Tap” turned out to be. Purporting to be a documentary, “or, if you will, rockumentary” (in the words of Reiner’s character, filmmaker Marty DiBergi), about the would-be-comeback tour of heavy metal band Spinal Tap (who’d originally featured on Reiner’s comedy pilot “The T.V. Show,” featuring Loudon Wainwright III on keyboards), made up of childhood friends David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), keyboard player Viv Savage (David Kaff) and an ever-rotating series of ill-fated drummers. It’s tempting to just turn this piece into a long list of the film’s inspired comic highlights, but one hopes you know them already. But for all the brilliant performances and absurdly funny writing, the film’s grounded by Reiner’s direction; real attention to detail is shown in creating the film’s world, and in replicating the look and feel of the music documentary (Martin Scorsese‘s “The Last Waltz” seemingly a particular inspiration), which means that even when the film heads into more surreal territory, it feels truthful. Reiner also invests genuine pathos into the falling out between St. Hubbins & Tufnel; it’s far from a simple gagfest. Many others — including Guest himself — have tried to replicate the formula, but never to the same success.

“The Sure Thing” (1985)
Confession: Reiner had a great run, but not every film is a solid-gold classic. “The Sure Thing” is a solid little teen movie, but not quite up there with some of the others. That said, the comedy, about a misfit college-age couple — girl-chasing Walter (John Cusack), hoping to find the “sure thing” of the title (Nicolette Sheridan), and uptight Alison (Daphne Zuniga), off to see her dull boyfriend — who fall in love on a cross-country trip to L.A., holds up pretty well. And that’s principally thanks to the ever-charming Cusack, along with some genuinely funny scenes and a heart firmly in the right place. If some elements are unnecessarily telegraphed (her English writing assignment needs loosening up, his needs buttoning down; she has a filofax, he has a six pack of beer, etc.) it really doesn’t matter — subtlety is not the order of the day here. With able supporting cameos from Tim Robbins as the mercilessly chipper showtune-singing rideshare driver Gary Cooper (“Not the dead one!”), and Anthony Edwards as the hard-partying West Coast best pal with the connection to the Sure Thing,  this is an amiable, if not inessential Reiner picture, and a film that, like its main character, is obsessed with the idea of sex, but is all the more likeable for never actually getting any.

“Stand By Me” (1986)
The director’s first collaboration with Stephen King, the man for whom he’d name his production company (Castle Rock, set up the following year, was so called for the fictional Maine town in which many of King’s novels are set) also showed a new maturity for a director who’d previously worked mostly in the comedy arena. Not that “Stand By Me” — about four friends who set out in search of the body of a missing boy — isn’t funny. The script, from “Starman” writers Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, has that raw authenticity that reminds you of the friends you had as a child that made you laugh until it hurt. But there’s also a melancholy — the pain for those friends, for the men they became and the boys they’ll never be again — that’s new to Reiner’s work at this point. And indeed, it’s the way that it veers away from sentimentality, even as the material seems to demand it, that marks it as something special. Reiner’s ever-developing keen eye for casting ends up with four very special leads in Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman and River Phoenix (whose sad passing only seven years later gives the film extra poignancy), and they don’t so much seem to be acting as just being captured as they come of age. King considers it his favorite of the adaptations of his work, and disregarding the author’s inexplicable distaste for Kubrick‘s take on “The Shining,” it’s hard to disagree.  

“The Princess Bride” (1987)
For many years after its 1973 publication, several directors, including Norman Jewison and, believe it or not, Francois Truffaut, had tried to adapt “The Princess Bride,” the fairy tale novel by “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” screenwriter William Goldman, into a film. But it was Rob Reiner, who’d been given the book in his 20s by his father while still appearing in “All in the Family,” who finally made it, although he had to fight tooth-and-nail to get it done. It’s fortunate, then, that the film turned out to be entirely charming and entertaining. A fantasy adventure about the romance between Buttercup, the world’s most beautiful woman, and Westley, the farm-boy-turned-pirate-king who loves her, it was a ripping yarn to begin with, and Goldman’s adaptation of his own novel is textbook, finding a present-day framing device (featuring Peter Falk and Fred Savage) that lends sweetness and pathos to the material, and porting across everything that made the book so great. And Reiner, after a long search, cast the hell out of it, somehow finding someone to live up to the descriptions of Buttercup in a young Robin Wright, discovering Cary Elwes, who embodies every great screen swashbuckler, and providing great screen turns from figures as diverse as Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Wallace Shawn and Andre The Giant (let alone cameos from the likes of Billy Crystal and Peter Cook). The tone the director strikes — loose, funny, absurd, but still with actual stakes — is pretty much perfection too. The production values might be a bit ropy in places, but the director makes that all part of the charm, and it’ll still be shown to adoring new fans when more expensive CGI-laden spectacles are long forgotten.

“When Harry Met Sally” (1989)
It’s only last week that we talked about what might stand as Reiner’s finest film, albeit in the sad context of the passing of Nora Ephron, the film’s screenwriter. And everything we said there remains true: its influence, its wit, its insight. But great scripts have been turned into bad movies before, and Reiner doesn’t miss a beat in his direction to ensure that nothing like that happens. Think of what might have happened had Reiner had made different casting choices, rather than pairing his long-time friend Billy Crystal (who went back as far as playing a mime in ‘Spinal Tap‘) with relative newcomer Meg Ryan, who had only taken a few small, supporting gigs in films like “Top Gun” and “Innerspace” up until that point (only after, it should be said, Richard Dreyfuss, Albert Brooks and Molly Ringwald turned the parts down). Or if he hadn’t cast another veteran of his first film, Bruno Kirby (the Sinatra-loving limo driver in ‘Spinal Tap’) with Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher, as the lead’s best friends. And then there’s his aesthetic choices, working with DoP Barry Sonnenfeld (soon to become a successful director in his own right), on a gorgeous autumnal look that essentially set the tone for virtually every rom-com that’s come since. Or even something seemingly small as the casting of his mother, Estelle, as the woman who delivers the line “I’ll have what she’s having” after Sally fakes an orgasm in the diner, a bone-dry delivery that brings the house down. Indeed, Ephron said that the scene came out of conversations with the director, who had a similar reaction to the idea that women fake orgasms as Harry does in the film: “Not with me!” In many ways, Reiner was the Sally to Ephron’s Harry.

“Misery” (1990)
Reiner’s last truly great film could not serve as a greater demonstration of the range and promise he showed in that first decade of his career, standing at an entirely different pole to even the darker moments of “Stand By Me.” It was only the director’s treatment of that earlier work that convinced author Stephen King to let him tackle his novel “Misery” (with “Princess Bride” writer William Goldman in tow for the adaptation), and the author’s faith paid off — the result was as horrifying a thriller as mainstream Hollywood has ever produced. The set-up is as simple as you could ask for. A romance novelist, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), is involved in a car crash, and is rescued by a nurse, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who turns out to be, famously, his “number one fan.” So much so, in fact, that she holds him captive, forcing him to burn his manuscript, and breaking his ankles with a sledgehammer to stop him from escaping (in the book, she cuts his feet off; Goldman found an equivalent somehow more palatable, and yet somehow more disturbing). Once more, the casting is key. A long search for a lead, in which William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and many more were considered, finally ended up with Caan, who’d only made a handful of films in the preceding decade, but the actor revived his career as a result. And as Annie Wilkes, Reiner went with a little-known stage actress, Kathy Bates, who ended up winning the Best Actress Oscar for her trouble. It’s impossible to imagine it with anyone else in the roles. And Reiner’s taut direction is good enough that his forthcoming return to the thriller genre, “You Belong To Me,” is a far more tantalizing prospect than anything he’s done recently.

“A Few Good Men” (1992)
Reiner stayed in more serious territory (although not quite as dark as “Misery“…) for this star-studded courtroom thriller, which also marked the screen debut of future “The Social Network” Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin. The writer, barely in his thirties at the time, adapted his own hit stage play, which involves a green navy lawyer (Tom Cruise) brought in to defend two Marines accused of killing a comrade in a “code red” — a violent punishment that may have been sanctioned by their commanding officers, including Colonel Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson). And while it doesn’t quite have the snap of his later work, it’s a pretty gripping drama, with a fine sense of the military environment. It’s old-fashioned, admittedly, but the director keeps the pace rattling along; just as Sorkin’s source material is very much a well-made play, Reiner’s is a well-made film. And while the decision to go for A-listers rather than porting over the stage cast (which included Tom Hulce and Bradley Whitford in Cruise’s role, and Stephen Lang and Ron Perlman in Nicholson’s) initially looks like an economic decision, few would question the casting by the time the legendary climactic showdown rolls around; Cruise and Nicholson clashing contains more fireworks than a Michael Bay movie, with both actors (particularly the latter, somewhat cast against type) at the top of the game. It’s probably not up there with some of the films that came before (although it’s his sole Best Picture nominee), but it remains fairly stirring stuff.

And After: It’s truly baffling as to how Reiner went from one of Hollywood’s most reliable helmers of quality mainstream fare to the director of anaemic, rom-coms that he’s mostly been of late. And it seemed to happen virtually overnight, with the wretched “North” in 1994, a sickly, entirely misguided kid’s fable starring a young Elijah Wood and Bruce Willis, in multiple roles. The following year saw something of an uptick, with Reiner reteaming with Sorkin for “The American President,” which is decent enough, but can’t help but feel like a warm up for “The West Wing” in retrospect. But from there, very little of Reiner’s stuff has been worth a watch.

Ghosts of Mississippifeatures an impressive James Woods performance, but is mostly a draggy, miscast reprise of the courtoom schtick of “A Few Good Men.” 1999’s “A Story Of Us” is a misguided, dull rom-com, something that would become a regular thing for Reiner, with the puzzling “Alex & Emma” in 2003, and the truly awful “The Graduate” semi-sequel “Rumor Has It,” possibly the director’s very worst, in 2005 (although in fairness, Reiner came on late, replacing writer-director Ted Griffin after he was fired several weeks into shooting). 2007 brought a now-rare commercial hit with “The Bucket List,” but it’s sentimental and contrived in a way that his earlier films never were. And we’d like to weigh in on 2010’s “Flipped,” which has its defenders, but like everyone else in the world, we didn’t see it.

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