Directed by Rob Reiner
Opens May 6
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Rob Reiner had one of mainstream cinema’s great runs as a director. Between 1984 and 1992, he made This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and A Few Good Men. Not every one of those is a stone masterpiece, but that still reps a surprising number of classics in a surprisingly short period of time. Reiner isn’t a master stylist, but those seven films together bring to mind workhorse studio directors of the 30s and 40s.
Maybe that comparison is key to understanding how that same director could fail to make a good movie since 1995, even while continuing to work consistently over the past two decades. Reiner followed up A Few Good Men with the disastrous ensemble comedy North in 1994, righted the ship with The American President a year later, then started to churn out movies that, charitably, are not as good as Stand by Me. Directors like Michael Curtiz or George Cukor would eventually see their best streaks come to an end too, but they directed so many movies that the lesser stuff—at least historically speaking—wouldn’t accumulate with the same level of disappointment. They had the luxury, such as it was, of grinding out movies with some degree of anonymity. Reiner “only” makes a movie every couple of years, and his career has flourished and wilted during a time when, it’s safe to say, more attention is paid to directors’ careers in general. Not that anyone is particularly anticipating the new Rob Reiner joint, these days. But every time he puts out a movie as lousy as the cutesy youth romance Flipped or the smarmy Graduate riff Rumor Has It, there’s a twinge of sad nostalgia. This guy used to make great stuff—movies for “everyone” that even film snobs could love.
Being Charlie is not great stuff. It’s not even particularly good stuff. But it is the best Rob Reiner movie I’ve seen in years, with the caveat that I couldn’t make it all the way through a TV airing of The Bucket List, or bring myself to engage with his second Morgan Freeman movie, The Magic of Belle Isle, or catch up with Alex and Emma, because these days, if a Reiner movie passes you by, you just let it go. Charlie is a more personal film for Reiner, sometimes in strange ways. It’s not unusual that a rich Hollywood director would see fit to direct a screenplay co-written by his son, Nick Reiner, based on his son’s experiences with drug addiction and rehab. But the callbacks to Reiner’s past glories are distracting, mostly notably casting Cary Elwes of The Princess Bride as the young addict’s irritable father, who is running for governor of California off the back of a movie career where he became famous for playing a pirate. (Elwes is nothing if not game, taking a largely unsympathetic role that on paper sounds like he’s playing himself, even though he assuredly is not.) The kid himself, Charlie (Nick Robinson), gets a showbiz-royalty quirk in that he’s a student of classic stand-up comedy, with aspirations to becoming a comedian himself. Less intrusive but still notable is the way one of Charlie’s rehab buddies does a running impression of Reiner’s two-time star Jack Nicholson (it’s a Cuckoo’s Nest joke, diligently overexplained, but surely Reiner could have given him some tips on Doing Jack).
When Being Charlie drops the Hollywood stuff and focuses on the hard work of sobriety, it’s quietly compelling. Notably, Charlie seems to want to get clean, at least for a lot of the movie; the story doesn’t turn into one long desperate spiral into the abyss. The mechanics of rehab, group meetings, halfway houses, curfews, and so on have, appropriately, the ring of real experience—even if, like so many rehab-centric movies, there’s a pretty girl lurking in the background of Charlie’s facility almost immediately. But Reiner and his writers manage to do right by this potential cliché.
This movie is certainly starker and more raw than anything I’ve seen Reiner do (although maybe The Magic of Belle Isle has more fucking and heroin-shooting in it than I ever expected), and it contains no slightly faded Hollywood royalty coasting with quasi-avuncular charm (Reiner in recent years having become a go-to director for the likes of Nicholson, Freeman, Diane Keaton, and Michael Douglas). These are important steps. But it’s still a little alarming that such an ace comic director has so little feel for comedy these days: The acerbic wisecracks Charlie issues throughout the film, while sober and not, aren’t especially funny, and I fear they’re supposed to be. Worse, the movie provides extended looks at his actual stand-up material, which has the distinction of not being quite as dire as the stand-up material in Garry Marshall’s recent abomination Mother’s Day. Marshall and Reiner are showbiz vets who have spent their lives around comedians. Have they forgotten what comedians sound like? That comedy routines are supposed to be funny first, and means of endearment a distant second at best? When Harry Met Sally is not exactly ruthless satire, but it is funny. Being Charlie indeed feels personal, but it also made me wonder if Reiner would do well to forget anything he’s learned in the past few decades, take on a pseudonym, and somehow get back to more of an anonymous grind.