K: Hi there, Johnny.
On this preview’s splash page, Morgan Freeman is just the picture of enlightenment. Did you notice that? It’s how he looks in every movie lately, and, frankly, that’s fine with me. I really think that’s how we long to see him: messiah-like and full of joy. Oh yes, he was wronged; he went through hardship in his formative years (see also Attica, Street Smart,) but those experiences burned him clean and touched him with some holy light. He is smiling; we don’t know why. We can’t know why. And of course, to complete this cliché, because a beautiful, clean cliché is what we so desire: We don’t want to. What Morgan Freeman knows is for Morgan Freeman to know. We can only hope he speaks. Prithee, say something, Mr. Freeman. Recite the phonebook, and arrive at my name. Speak to us.
Also, I can’t get the trailer to play on my computer this morning, but I promise to have watched it by the time you write back.
J: I couldn’t agree more, Kate. There are three things, and only three things, I need from a heartwarming summer blockbuster: bolo ties, clumsy product placement, and Morgan Freeman. Throw in a handful of Roseanne-inspired bluesy harmonica riffs, and I’m readier to sit in a darkened room and cry than Jason Mallory himself.
(Ed. note: This is physically impossible.)
However, the beauty of The Magic of Belle Isle doesn’t come from its tight narrative focus, but rather from the fact that it obviously started off as some sort of MFA screenwriting program ice breaker, which was later set to music. In fact, “there are no wrong answers” seems to be the filmmaker’s motto, if not lifestyle. A wheelchair-bound curmudgeon? Yes, please. A comical dog? Uh-huh, keep talking. A family of Lindsay Lohans living next door, ready to teach generic lessons about growing and learning? Why not make it two…? Oh, and the writer’s incomparable ability to stitch together every single hackneyed expression ever uttered (including, but not limited to, “There’s more to life than the way you’re living,” “You’re gonna need a bigger wheelchair,” and “Who moved my cheese?”) makes it pretty clear that Morgan Freeman won’t be the only exquisite corpse in this film. I think I’ll go ahead and call it now: This is the disaster movie of the year.
K: Right on. They had me—dead—at “Spot? That woman has a way of making me sit taller in the saddle.” Really, it hurts to even type it, and I’m sorry you had to read it.
You know, there’s a great movie game everyone can play at home called “The End!” You play “The End!” by deciding that the end of the movie you’re watching takes place while you’re still at some point mid-exposition. So in Castaway, Tom Hanks, the friendly Fedex executive, dies in a plane crash; while in Up, a little boy finds true love, gets married and grows old, but his wife dies before they can take their dream vacation. “The End!”
Sadly, the game doesn’t work so well, here. The triumvirate you wisely list above (1. wheel-chair bound curmudgeon with a sparkle in his eye, 2. comic dog, 3. The Lohan Three) work together to make it crystal-clear that this is no art movie about a sad old drunk, even before the “Salisbury Hill” turn of soundtrack.
And even before that incorrigible redhead stands in the doorway and says, you know, “You’ve got a thing or two to learn about life,” or “Somebody in this movie’s gonna learn a lesson, and it’s a lesson that’s gonna be scored by Roseanne-esque harmonica, buddy,” or whatever—even before then, you know this is a Brassy-Light-Hearted-Romp In Which Everybody Learns a Little Somethin’® precisely because it is Morgan Freeman. The presence of Morgan Freeman makes this a Morgan Freeman Parable™ one in which he makes the attitudinal and character shift—from jaded and rusty to clear-eyed and washed-clean—the same shift we’ve seen him make slowly, role by career-building role, over the course of one, single, 90-minute B.L.H.R.I.W.E.L.L.S.®
J: Morgan Freeman, Morgan Freeman, Morgan Freeman. Why don’t you just fuck him already, Kate?
The problem with Morgan Freeman isn’t his power of seduction or sexual prowess (I expect a full report once you’ve finished up and hosed down, btw), but that he’s gotten so good at playing the mythical stereotype of an idea of a person, he’s forgotten how to be a person altogether. I can just see him in the kitchen, ordering his granddaughter-wife around with little tidbits like, “More ham syrup on pap-pap’s eggs, goddamn you,” and “Come sit on husband step-grandpa’s lap, dear one.” Of course, what sounds misogynistic at best, and creepy-fucking-crawly at worst, comes across as ancient, eternal wisdom when blown through his vocal chords, full of deep and permanent meaning, possibly handed down from on high by a race of extraterrestrial beings.
If only there were some way for this clown to learn a valuable lesson. Some sort of tried and true, three-part situation we could put him through, so that he and everyone around him might change and grow and arc as characters. Maybe something with a dog, and a wheelchair, and a lake. Pool noodles. A bag of Cheetos and Virginia Madsen. Or better yet, Virginia Madsen played by a bag of Cheetos. Same orange color, same great taste, now with greater emotional depth. Or maybe, just maybe, we’re playing right into Mr. Freeman’s hand. Maybe he wants us to search for deeper meaning in our lives. Maybe he wants us to doubt, to fear, to love. Maybe he wants me to strip off all my clothes and meet him in a undisclosed West Hollywood motel, ass in the air, and wearing little more than a Jessica Tandy mask and a sleepy grin. Oh Kate, I think I’m starting to see where you’re coming from.
I guess we’ve all Learned a Little Somethin’® today.
K: Johnny, haven’t you learned? You can’t fuck with the Jesus. That’s my Little Somethin’® for you. Let me know if you need someone to pick you up from that Super 8.