“Being Charlie” is, as David Ehrlich says in his review, the best movie Rob Reiner has made in 20 years. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much. From 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap” to 1992’s “A Few Good Men,” it seemed like Reiner could do no wrong. 1986’s “Stand by Me” wasn’t the first great movie made from a Stephen King source, but it transformed the way Hollywood approached adapting his work. 1987’s “The Princess Bride” was an instant classic, and in 1989, “When Harry Met Sally…” set the romantic comedy template for a generation. 1992’s “A Few Good Men” provided the Hollywood entree for an up-and-coming playwright named Aaron Sorkin.
The roof didn’t cave in all at once. 1994’s “North” was a critical punching bag and a commercial flop, inspiring a legendarily savage Roger Ebert pan: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” (It goes on like that.) “The American President” (1995), Reiner’s second Sorkin go-round, seemed to right the ship, but after years of turning out reliable awards candidates, Reiner’s film managed only a single Oscar nomination, for Marc Shaiman’s score. “Ghosts of Mississippi” (1996) got two nods, including one for James Woods’ turn as white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith, but the movie felt inflated by its own self-importance. Critics’ praise was lukewarm, and, more importantly, box-office receipts lagged far behind its budget.
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And after that, it seemed like Reiner… maybe, just didn’t care so much? He was a solid, reliable craftsman, the kind of guy you call when, say, you’re firing the director of your ill-conceived quasi-sequel to “The Graduate” and need someone on set, pronto. (Remember “Rumor Has It…”? Probably not.)
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However, with films like “The Story of Us” and “Alex & Emma,” the impeccable taste that defined his peak years seemed to be AWOL. His real triumphs were in the political arena. He became a major fundraiser for the Democratic Party and chaired the California Children and Families Commission. He was successful, and dedicated, in a way few figures from the entertainment industry are; he later co-founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which spearheaded the challenge to California’s Proposition 8 that laid the groundwork for marriage equality. Just last week, he was stumping for green jobs and infrastructure investment on “Real Time With Bill Maher.”
As he admitted in a 2007 interview with the New York Times, his interest in politics began to detract from his career as a filmmaker. “People kept asking me, ‘How do you balance it?'” he told the Times’ David Halbfinger, “and the point is, you don’t.”
That NYT interview was timed to promote “The Bucket List,” a film that could have turned things around: Critics still found it broad and saccharine, but its global box-office take exceeded $175 million.
Instead, it became his last film to see a major release as Reiner’s career slid off a cliff. He didn’t make another film until 2010; “Flipped” took in $1.7 million. Next was “The Magic of Belle Isle” (2012), starring Morgan Freeman as a novelist who’s lost his inspiration; it barely cracked $100,000. (His last film, 2014’s “And So It Goes” starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton, earned $25 million.)
“Being Charlie,” Reiner’s latest, isn’t exactly a comeback: For one thing, its limited distribution is unlikely to yield a box-office smash. But for the first time in a very long while, you can feel Reiner’s presence — in no small part because the script was co-written by Reiner’s son, Nick, and is based on his struggles with drug addiction and multiple stints in rehab.
“Being Charlie” revolves around the relationship between a rebellious, troubled son (Nick Robinson) and his ambitious, distant father (Cary Elwes), a retired movie star in the midst of a campaign for the governor’s office. Given that Reiner himself once mulled running for governor, it doesn’t take much imagination to connect the two. (Reiner, at least, sought his family’s permission before running, and was denied: When his wife and three children voted, he says, “I polled 40 percent in my own family.”) If it feels like there’s more of Reiner in the movie, that’s because there is.
In “Being Charlie’s” first draft, Reiner says, Elwes’ character “was particularly the heavy. He was a totally one-dimensional, black-and-white bad guy. And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is the way Nick feels about me, or he has felt about me.'”
After talking it over with his son, Reiner says, he learned that some of the father’s characterization came from Nick’s writing partner, Matt Eliofson, who felt that the Charlie character needed a strong antagonist to make him sympathetic. One day, as Reiner tells it, Nick came to him and admitted, “Yeah, the dad is too much of a bad guy. He’s not believable. He’s not real.”
Elwes’ character still comes off as flat, a pressed-tin version of Michael Douglas in “Traffic,” but the movie finds more depth in its final scenes, as father and son come to a hard-won understanding. The movie’s climactic scene, Reiner says, “changed a hundred times” as his relationship with his son was shifting. “It was life imitating art imitating life, flying around in circles.”
Making smaller movies, Reiner admits, wasn’t entirely his choice: Like a lot of veteran filmmakers, he laments the industry’s turn away from character-driven stories towards IP-driven franchises. Reiner’s production company, Castle Rock, is nearing its 30th anniversary and has more than 100 productions to its credit, including “Bernie,” “Michael Clayton,” “The Polar Express,” “Before Sunset,” and “A Mighty Wind.”
“Not one of the pictures we’ve made would ever get made at a studio today,” Reiner says. “I’m not interested in the kinds of pictures that they make. I never was.” “Being Charlie” was funded by Jorva Entertainment’s Johnson Chan. “Hopefully,” Reiner says, “he’s going to fund the next picture I’m going to do.”
It’s a familiar refrain, as is Reiner’s suggestion that much of the more interesting character-driven work is being done on television. “Being Charlie,” in fact, began as a project for TV, first as a half-hour pilot, then an hour-long comedy-drama, both centered on what would become of the Charlie character. It was Reiner who suggested it might be a movie, and adding the parents might give the story greater scope. As he worked to integrate both generations into the story, he found himself becoming part of it as well.
“We had fights,” Reiner says. “We had had fights when he was going in and out of rehab, but we also had fights when we were making the film, because I was still stuck on a lot of things that were told to me — very much like in the film, where the son tells the father character, ‘You listen to anybody with a desk and a diploma, because you don’t know what to do.’ You want to keep your child safe, as a parent that’s your main charge, but you feel helpless, so you kind of throw yourself into the hands of these so-called experts. What you don’t realize is that you are more of an expert on your son than the experts, and you have to trust that. I didn’t trust that, and it took me a long time, going through this process with Nick, to truly understand what exactly he was telling me and why he was doing what he did. It helped me understand him a lot better.”
That level of humility is a difficult thing for any parent to learn. And it’s something new in Reiner’s movies, which often err on the side of offering tidy solutions rather than difficult choices: “A Few Good Men” never suggests that we might really need Jack Nicholson on that wall.
Reiner’s next project, which focuses on the reporters who sounded notes of caution before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, could easily backslide into lesson-learning: Even many conservatives now admit the invasion was a mistake, and Reiner is hardly a conservative. (He’s already wrapped “LBJ,” starring Woody Harrelson as the former president, and hopes to finish it in the next few months.)
Given the movie industry’s well-publicized struggles with diversity, the plight of a old, white Oscar nominee can only evoke so much sympathy. If Reiner’s fortunes have fallen, it’s in part because his movies have often felt out of touch. Morgan Saylor, who plays the lead in Sundance’s controversial “White Girl,” also plays the lead’s troubled girlfriend in “Being Charlie,” and it’s hard to avoid comparing the cloistered empathy in “Charlie” with “White Girl’s” savage satire of privilege. But along with the goo, “Being Charlie” has blood in its veins. It finally feels like Reiner has something left to say, even if he’s still feeling his way toward saying it.