November 21, 2012 -- “The Magic of Belle Isle” is a story about a place, like Oz, that exists only in the imagination, which is part of its charm. It is about a novelist who talks like he writes, which is believable enough, but every other adult in the film talks the same way, which is not believable, but this is Oz, after all, not the real world. Also, it is charming enough so that it is worth overlooking the phony-sounding dialog.
Morgan Freeman (“Red”) stars as the crotchety old novelist, Monte Wildhorn, who is transplanted against his will to the small lakeside community of Belle Isle. Monte is a prickly customer embittered by life, crippled by a car accident, partially paralyzed by a stroke and also somewhat impoverished. He could be rich by selling the movie rights to his books, but refuses to do so. He seems determined to drink himself to death.
Against this bitterness is pitted the town of Belle Isle (filmed in the Village of Greenwood Lake, New York) and his friendly neighbors, determined to draw him out and win him over. His next door neighbor is the luminous Charlotte O'Neil (Virginia Madsen of “Sideways”) with her busy children, Finn (Emma Fuhrmann of the “Prime Suspect” TV series) her older sister Willow (Madeline Carroll of “Machine Gun Preacher”) and her younger sister, Flora (Nicolette Pierini). Monte also has close encounters with another neighbor, Al Kaiser (Fred Willard of “Best in Show”) and a young man, Carl Loop (Ash Christian of “Domino”) who seems to hop like a bunny wherever he goes.
Finn has a vivid imagination and wants to be a writer. She manages to talk Monte into being her mentor. He agrees to try to teach her how to use her imagination to create her own stories. In doing so, Monte rediscovers his passion for writing. He also develops a passion for his beautiful next door neighbor, Charlotte O'Neil. In his imagination, he dances with her in the moonlight.
Monte starts out as a very bitter, prickly character, but he becomes likeable eventually and sociable a lot more quickly than you would expect. Charlotte O'Neil and Finn are both very compelling characters as well. The rest are more like caricatures. The dialog tends to be formal and a bit stilted, but quite literary. This befits the author. The trouble is, too many of the characters, including Monte's relative and caretaker, Henry (Kenan Thompson of “Snakes on a Plane”) talk pretty much the same way as Monte does. It all sounds too rehearsed and polished. It just doesn't sound like the way real people talk.
The problems with the dialog and story are overcome by the fact that this is a very nice, warm, romantic story with some magic in it. People in the story may start out mean, but they end up being kind to each other. That is very refreshing in a time when there seems to be a competition to the bottom, to see who can care the least about other people. Even if the story isn't believable, the characters are compelling. This film rates a B.
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