By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 5, 2012 at 1:09PM
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.
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 Mississippi" features 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.