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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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Stand By Me
"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
"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
"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.

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


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