May 4, 2016

A Look at Rob Reiner and the Curse of Diminishing Returns

Scene from Being Charlie
There are few directors who have had the track record of Rob Reiner at the start of his career. Sure, there have been a whole lot of more acclaimed filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, but there's some magic to what he made between 1984 and 1992. He not only made films that struck the zeitgeist, he practically defined pop culture during this time with: This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally..., Misery, and A Few Good Men. Add in 1995's The American President (the film that inspired The West Wing), and you have a filmography so strong that most people would likely envy to have half of it. However, his reputation isn't the best nowadays thanks to everything since. With Being Charlie set for a Friday limited release, it looks like people are hailing his return. Hopefully it will restore the faith that people had in him (the reviews kinda think so). However, it serves as a reminder of once great talents and the question as to how we perceive them, decades after they stopped being amazing.
I know that most people likely don't know what Reiner has been up to over the past decade. While many will remember his name, whether from the aforementioned films or his various acting gigs, it isn't likely that anyone can recall more than one of his films. In the past decade, the only film that struck a chord with audiences was The Bucket List; a film which arguably is more iconic for popularizing a term than for its comedic tale of two acting heavyweights getting to play silly. It is by no means a great film, but was a heartwarming entry in a waning career. For most people, that's about as relevant as Reiner has been in the time since we heard Jack Nicholson say "You can't handle the truth." in A Few Good Men. Frankly, that's kind of on point, unless you count the various satirical take downs that South Park had with Reiner's activism and obesity issues. Even then, it's not the most flattering thing to put a period on a career for.
Whether or not it was a good idea to stop there, I chose to believe that his new films would be worth a watch. As he shifted from theatrical releases to video on demand, I found the accessibility more tolerable. Yet his work only got worse. Flipped is among the worst films of the decade. The Magic of Belle Isle is too tame to be memorable. It's no wonder then that I ignored And So It Goes and knew nothing about Being Charlie until the reviews tried to revive me from a coma saying that "Reiner is good again." In all honesty, I do want to believe that someone who had the track record that he had was good. However, it's easier said than done once you watch most of his latter day movies. 
This brings me to a point: should you give up on artists whose work is so initially brilliant that their lack of a spark later on is almost tragic? Reiner has that in spades for me, and I keep finding myself wanting to reach back in and remember why he was so compelling. He didn't just make dramas and comedies, he made them for a wide audience. He appealed to everyone no matter what genre he did, and there's something integral about that. While most filmmakers are content with releasing one or two hits, Reiner had six in eight years. Considering his ability to be a studio director who does impressive work with the right material, I sometimes wonder why he isn't revered as one of the greats. I do think that it is in part because of his early work being so memorable and iconic. People remember This is Spinal Tap to the point that a real life fake band toured (and arguably gave Christopher Guest his own genre as a director) and Misery won Kathy Bates an Oscar. That doesn't just happen. 
Yet the anticipation for his work has faded over the years to the point that Being Charlie isn't even in wide release. Of course, that's not much considering that Tom Hanks has a film out right now (A Hologram for the King) that nobody knows about either. Still, Hanks' track record has been more reliable than his Sleepless in Seattle costar. It just doesn't make sense, especially if the film is predicted to be as good as people claim. If nothing else, recent interviews with WTF with Marc Maron solidify that Reiner is very passionate about the film, drawing personal experiences from his son's drug recovery. There's a sense of urgency that makes you think that maybe, even if the film isn't as good as Stand By Me, that he has the spark underneath him again.
When discussing his career, Quentin Tarantino brings up Billy Wilder. The writer/director's work was phenomenal for even longer than Reiner's, producing massive and influential hits for over two decades. However, Tarantino suggests that he plans to stop after making 10 films because of how Wilder's later career went. Yes, Wilder had the hits, but his work from the 70's onward is far from recognizable of the man's talents. Considering that this hypothetically means that Tarantino has two more to go, it does seem like an odd self-awareness that one could easily apply to almost any long term filmmaker. One could argue that had Reiner stopped after 10 years, he would be considered amazing. Instead, he has continued for over 30 years and has earned a more lackluster reputation.
It could just be that audiences want more and that at a certain point, filmmakers are passionate and will make whatever they want. That's fine. However, the reputations are at play, and it's difficult to really get a grasp on legacy, especially if audiences only recognize the most recent work. To counterattack this, one could look at the Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese trajectory. Both have been going for even longer than Reiner and have continued to make provocative and great work. They've had their share of clunkers, but the track record expanded several decades at the very least in ways to argue that maybe there's not a lot to worry about. Of course, the chance of auteurs like them being relevant for decades on in is rare. Greats can continue to produce quality work without an audience giving them notice.
Then there are those that have dry spells and then turn things around. While Reiner's one gift is that he's also an actor - having recently done memorable work in The Wolf of Wall Street and New Girl - he does seem to express passion for Being Charlie. Also, it has happened for actors before, most notably with Matthew McConaughey. The actor was known for dreadful romantic comedies before, starting around 2011, turning in serious roles that changed his legacy. While it's less common with directors, one can only imagine that a director whose initial appeal was that he made films that appealed to a wide audience can do it again. True, The Bucket List is technically that, but it's a rare blip in an increasingly less present career. What he needs is to have more than one hit every now and then, even if he's just making movies for an older audience.
The truth is that the buzz around Being Charlie has me somewhat excited to think that Reiner has made a good movie. Unlike most people, I will know that it's better than his current average. Considering that he has another film on the way this year with LBJ (likely being marketed as an awards contender), this may end up being a good year for Reiner. I hope it is, as it would be difficult to admit that he was once great instead of being such. It also doesn't help that he's just so charming. Still, his early work will stand as a testament to his craft. But should he have, as Tarantino suggested, quit long ago? There's not much to argue against. Even the level of his reputation claims this. 

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