That the The Magic of Belle Isle can conjure any true feeling at all is some kind of wonder. Set in upstate New York, at the idyllic lakeside town of the title, this gooey reteaming of Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman is crammed tight with baldly manipulative elements, its tearjerker quota busting at the seams. A cute dog, a mentally challenged neighbor, a caricatured Muslim cashier, a precocious young girl, her adorable sisters, a kindly single mom, and Freeman’s redemption-bound curmudgeon are all accounted for, in a setting where the sun kisses everything and everyone knows your name. Freeman’s character, a washed-up, wheelchair-bound author, goes by the name of Monte Wildhorn, and like the hero in the western novel that made his career, Monte exudes the moody heartache of a lonely cowboy—or, at least, that’s what we’re supposed to think. When Monte moves into a rent-free cabin with little more than a snarl, a Larry McMurtry typewriter, and a soon-to-be-replenished supply of scotch, he’s greeted by all but the violins. Finnegan O’Neil (Emma Fuhrmann), the curious tween next door, takes an overeager interest on cue. Carl Loop (Ash Christian), the “special” boy in town, catches Monte’s eye by bunny-hopping about in scuba goggles. And Ringo, the resident yellow lab Monte inflexibly renames Spot, is good for canine comic relief from minute one. Somehow, some way, amid all its puppeteering, this TV-ready trope fest reveals a mildly affecting spirit, particularly in small moments between Monte and the O’Neil clan, and especially in that Monte’s race is never once addressed, despite an otherwise all-white population.
But never are we allowed to forget just who’s beneath Monte’s cowboy hat, as The Magic of Belle Isle is first a Freeman star vehicle, a fact that’s refreshing in the broader sense of leading-man diversity, but remains as transparent as the rest of the movie’s ploys. Just as Bruce Almighty tried to class itself up by casting Freeman as God, the actor’s latest leads with the notion that he’s an unimpeachable national treasure, and that even the hokiest fluff is palatable, so long as it’s read by him. Guy Thomas’s script sets up multiple opportunities for the divine cliché of Freeman narration, including the reciting of a eulogy and a voiceover that guides us through the pages of a children’s story, which Monte is inspired to write for Finnegan’s sister as the O’Neils nudge him out of retirement. In the film’s simple town, Monte is regarded as a formidable success who’s worthy of respect, and regardless of his flaws, there are few new conflicts dealt to him. His cantankerousness is endured until he comes around, his vocation permits him to condescend to others with verbose eloquence, and his penchant to only write about iterations of himself is celebrated. Bathos notwithstanding, there’s something uncomfortable about the entire presentation, especially when one takes a closer look at Freeman’s filmography. Like Meryl Streep, the 75-year-old star is idolized without reservation, yet his truly great movies can only be counted on one hand. That his gifts would be relied on not just as a bad film’s crutch, but also to acquit his character is fairly insulting.
Which isn’t to say Freeman’s performance isn’t still The Magic of Belle Isle‘s best asset. Though it further tramples the theory that the Oscar winner can spin garbage into gold, a late monologue, before becoming too poetic for comfort, proves highly captivating, and scenes Monte shares with Finegan’s mom, Charlotte (Virginia Madsen), have a certain genuine sweetness. Actors of this caliber can bring sustained beauty to fleeting passages, and fend off the slaughter of their characters’ romances by such lines as, “You walk into a room like a warm breeze after a rain.” But they can’t undo a weightless climax or a helplessly saccharine ending, nor can they hide the sad contradiction of an uninspired film that hinges an arc on the concept of imagination (Monte promises to have Finnegan tapping into hers by the end of summer). If this family film had any real grasp of the power of irony, surely it would have opted out of its crudest running gag, which sees Monte talk down to Spot with $10 phrases, only to watch the dog turn and lick its balls.