Almost every night of the week, some cable TV channel shows a classic film directed by Rob Reiner, either The Princess Bride, Stand by Me, This Is Spinal Tap, Misery or A Few Good Men. But until recently (on April 27 and 28 the Film Society of Lincoln Center will hold a two-day retrospective of films Reiner directed and Martin Scorsese will present him with the Chaplin Award) many people have thought of him as “Meathead” from the 1970s television series All in The Family, or as a Hollywood director who happened to make excellent films in various genres. According to Andrew Sarris’s three-pronged definition of an auteur, a filmmaker who repeatedly explores the same themes, has consistency in tone, and is technically competent, Reiner qualifies. His most famous films demonstrate recurring themes that weave throughout his larger body of work, a seriocomic sensibility and a technical competence. Although he’s worked with a variety of screenwriters, including Aaron Sorkin, William Goldman, Nora Ephron and Alan Zweibel, Reiner consistently addresses common themes. Himself a writer since the 1960s, he focuses on writers and the obstacles they confront, the process of creativity, the value of stories, and the use of words to combat corrupt authority figures and bullies. He also demonstrates a consistent tone by balancing the sad and dark with the lighthearted, sometimes punctuating tense or dramatic scenes with out-of-the-blue humor. Although his visual style is not showy, it is effective, and he is a gifted storyteller with an excellent sense of pacing and timing.
Reiner is interested in the beneficial effects of stories and art, and the creative process (Stand by Me, Misery, Alex and Emma, Flipped, The Magic of Belle Isle, The Princess Bride). In his romantic comedies, the protagonist is often a writer, but is inevitably a spontaneous partner courting, or coexisting uneasily with, a stodgier mate (When Harry Met Sally, Alex and Emma,The Story of Us, The Sure Thing). The hero or heroine in the romances also often worries about making a commitment. Finally, in a few films Reiner expresses outrage at the abuse of power. His protagonists use brains, not brawn, to thwart the powerful villains or bullies (A Few Good Men, The American President, Ghosts of Mississippi).
Stories often comfort or cheer Reiner’s characters. The first shot of The Princess Bride is of a video game watched by a sick little boy who has no enthusiasm for listening to a mushy tale his grandfather proposes to read aloud. At the film’s end the boy, now fascinated, asks the old man to return the following day to read it again. Stories that Gordie invents in Stand by Me give him respite from a troubled home life and a father who doesn’t love him. His stories also give him a sense of identity and accomplishment, and the one about the fat kid who gets revenge on the townspeople who mocked him by setting off mass, contagious barfing heartens his friends, who also have been victims of teasing. Alex in Alex and Emma started writing as a child as a way to express feelings he couldn’t voice after his parents’ divorce. Paul Sheldon’s romantic novels bring joy to Annie Wilkes, the bedeviled fan in Misery.
Reiner also examines the creative process; in films from This Is Spinal Tap (1984) to The Magic of Belle Isle (2012) the director presents artists, usually writers, wrestling with obstacles to their craft. Writers struggle to find their voice (Stand by Me,The Magic of Belle Isle), recapture their voice (Misery), overcome writer’s block (The Magic of Belle Isle) and come to terms with readers’ expectations (Misery). Alex and Emma is entirely about a novelist, his muse/critic/audience, and the creative process; the two characters discuss writer’s block, inspiration, responsibility to the reader, character development, writing oneself into and out of a corner, deadline pressure, borrowing from life to lend to the story, devising a plot, and other aspects of creating fiction. Rob Reiner movies that delve into writers’ and artists’ relationship with their fans include Misery, in which an unhinged reader torments a novelist when he stops writing bodice rippers and This Is Spinal Tap, in which the aging rockers face dwindling audiences.
In some of Reiner’s romantic comedies, the leading man or lady is a writer (The Story of Us, Alex and Emma, Rumor Has It), but in all of them one partner is zanier, and more uninhibited and fun-loving than the other, who is relatively reserved and cautious. By the movie’s end, the free-spirited partner partially grows up and the more restrained mate partially loosens up, sometimes doing something silly or playful just for the hell of it. The staid Michelle Pfeiffer dons a noisy fireman’s hat in response to Bruce Willis’s shenanigans in The Story of Us, and John Cusak provokes the responsible, organized college girl in The Sure Thing to bare her breasts to a carful of strangers. Although The Bucket List is not a romance, it pairs Jack Nicholson’s impulsive character with Morgan Freeman’s more thoughtful one, and the former influences the latter to become adventurous at the end of his life. In The American President Sydney’s passion for combatting global warming and standing up for worthy causes finally affects the president, who has focused on what he thinks he can pragmatically accomplish until his spirited speech at the movie’s conclusion.
The American President also exemplifies the director’s outrage at bullies and unscrupulous authority figures. The Republican politician who plans to run for president lies to the American people and falsely accuses Sydney of trading sexual favors for political gain. Some of these villains are megalomaniacs, others cruel, insensitive jerks. In Ghosts of Mississippi, Reiner deplores white Southerners who behave inhumanely to African Americans, particularly the coward who shoots Medgar Evers in the back in front of the house where his children sleep. Gordie’s father in Stand by Me asks him why he can’t be more like his deceased older brother, and in A Few Good Men Col. Jessup lies and destroys evidence after a soldier dies during a hazing he ordered.
The good guys or victims prevail by using their noggins. An instance of a protagonist employing his wits to foil a bully occurs in Stand by Me when Kiefer Sutherland’s Ace finally realizes Gordie won’t back down when the boy tells the juvenile delinquent, “Suck my fat one, you cheap dime-store hood.” The hobbled Paul Sheldon outwits and overcomes his crazed but sturdy captor, Annie Wilkes, in Misery, and Tom Cruise’s character manipulates Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup into incriminating himself inA Few Good Men. Near the end of The Princess Bride Westley, the “mostly dead” but recovering hero instructs Inigo Montoya and the giant as the latter drags his rubbery body around the evil king’s castle.
Like Reiner himself, the protagonists in A Few Good Men and Stand by Me have fathers who seem larger than life, and the two characters suffer from anxiety that they won’t live up to paternal expectations.
So Reiner, a writer and a son of the formidable comedian/writer/actor/director/producer Carl Reiner, clearly addresses personal issues in his films. He has undoubtedly made some clunkers, notably North, The Story of Us and Rumor Has It. But Reiner is artistically ambitious, and even these, his least successful films, address his perennial themes of the spontaneous writer who matures and learns to accept a more straitlaced mate (The Story of Us, Rumor Has It) or a child, like the boys in Stand by Me and Flipped, who feels neglected by his parents and creates stories to overcome his sorrow (North).