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

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 5, 2012 at 1:09PM

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.
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Rob Reiner

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"
"This is Spinal Tap"
"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
"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.

This article is related to: Rob Reiner, Features, The Essentials


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