Despite the title, there isn’t much magic to be had here, which is surprising, considering the competent direction and very reliable leads. Instead, the entire premise seems a bit odd and unbelievable, while the movie itself feels littered with too many characters that don’t add to the story. And at roughly 10 minutes shy of a two-hour runtime, The Magic of Belle Isle is an exhausting film to get through.
Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) is an uninspired novelist who has been brought to the Belle Isle community by his nephew to house sit and possibly start writing again. Monte has other plans, of course, which include drinking himself to death. His closest neighbor is Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) who is raising her three daughters Willow, Finnegan and Flora (Madeline Carroll, Emma Fuhrmann and Nicolette Pierini) by herself. Monte and Charlotte’s lives cross paths when Finnegan decides that she needs help with her imagination. Who better to hire as a mentor than a published author? Through this serendipitous meeting, Monte slowly learns to give life and love another chance.
Like the ingredients to a person’s favorite dish, the elements that compose this film are excellent. Morgan Freeman is as spectacular as he always is in whatever role he plays. He’s wisely given long monologues where he can really showcase his signature velvety voice. Virginia Madsen is a wonderful foil for Freeman, often offering a wide range of emotions to help tease more and more character out. The film’s idyllic location is also beautiful to look at – as is most lakefront property – and is as much a character in the film as the speaking parts. Finally, there’s a heartwarming dynamic among the various ages in the film that should appeal to a broad audience.
The film breaks down, however, at the script level. The characters oftentimes seem like they’re being intellectually dishonest in what they say and do. For instance, Finnegan claims that she needs help with her imagination, which is the impetus for approaching Monte. Yet, a few scenes prior, Finnegan was able to create a complete backstory for her new, mysterious neighbor whom she hadn’t met yet. It also seems like a stretch that Charlotte would develop feelings for Monte, who is clearly several decades her senior and could easily be her daughters’ grandfather. The age inappropriateness is further reinforced when the O’Neil daughters try in vain to teach Monte how to use a Blackberry cell phone. Finally, the point of character driven films is to watch the character(s) change over time. The events in the film knock the character out of their everyday life, and the audience gets to witness how those events shape the character. In The Magic of Belle Isle, it would be expected to watch the irascible Monte become humanized by the innocent Finnegan, but the film pays off that catharsis too soon and without the help of any other character or situation. Instead, Monte goes around town reading heartfelt eulogies, giving sales advice to local proprietors and providing a father figure and friend to a local man who has the mind of a child. Clearly, the change in Monte’s character is subtle, if not too subtle.
One of the biggest issues with The Magic of Belle Isle is that it crams too much into what should otherwise be a straightforward story. The film really doesn’t need most of the characters that get to speak, like town mayor Al Kaiser (Fred Willard), convenience store clerk Mahmoud (Debargo Sanyal) and Karen and Carl Loop (Jessica Hecht and Ash Christian). It seems like their scenes are going to pay off in some neat way, but they don’t, which makes one wonder why they were included in the first place.
To be sure, there are a couple of genuinely magical moments here. Monte is a very old fashioned writer who still uses a mechanical typewriter (one-handed even!) and he gives a speech extoling its virtues that any writer who is close to his or her work can appreciate. There’s also a surreal moment where a man who is otherwise crippled gets up to dance under the moonlight. Coupled with strong performances, these moments might be enough to justify slogging through this film. Many audiences, however, will not be convinced.