If you ever doubted the difference a single actor can make to a project, I give you Morgan Freeman.
An Oscar winner for "Million Dollar Baby" and nominee four other times, he more than earns his keep in "The Magic of Belle Isle." He's like a human motor effortlessly pulling this story through the water and making it more than it probably was on paper.
2.5 stars = Average
- Starring: Morgan Freeman, Virginia Madsen.
- Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and language including some suggestive comments.
He is Monte Wildhorn, a Western novelist unhappily house-sitting at a lakeside cabin for the summer. Monte, who must use a wheelchair to get around, saw his world shrink and darken further when his dear wife died of cancer; now he's a writer who doesn't write and an alcoholic who does drink although not straight from the whiskey bottle, which would mean he was a lost cause.
The widower is brought back to life and to the manual typewriter by the almost divorced woman (Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters living next door. The middle girl, 9-year-old Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), takes a shine to Monte, who schools her in imagination, "the most powerful force ever made available to humankind."
It's a classic case of movie synergy: strangers turned unlikely neighbors and friends, with advantages all around.
That includes the changes in a young adult who is mentally disabled and prefers to bunny hop rather than walk -- until Monte christens him his faithful sidekick. Although designed to be sympathetic, this character veers into cringe-worthy cliche, as when he insists on wearing a swim mask on a bus.
Mr. Freeman is delightful, as always, renaming the dog he's watching and attempting to teach him to retrieve a ball. "I see the concept of fetch eludes you. I blame [owner] Dave for that."
Any potential romantic attraction between the neighbors is dampened, for me, by the age difference: Ms. Madsen is 50 and Mr. Freeman, 75. In Hollywood, that is the new math although friendship knows no generational boundaries.
In the steady hands of director Rob Reiner, working with a screenplay by Guy Thomas ("Wholly Moses!" with Dudley Moore), "The Magic of Belle Isle" isn't magical, but it is scenic, pleasant and a reminder that no matter what the setback -- limbs that no longer work, losing a spouse, trading Manhattan for a charming vacation house -- life can go on, if you just let it.
Plays Friday through Tuesday at Hollywood Theater in Dormont.