Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Sad Decline of Rob Reiner

Rumor Has It..., the upcoming film in which Jennifer Aniston discovers her family was the basis for the story of The Graduate, looks to be about eight different kinds of awful, starting with the fact that somebody actually thought making a semi-sequel to The Graduate was a good idea in the first place (someone who's never watched Buck Henry's cameo in The Player, most likely -- or at least, watched it but didn't get it). But what's most striking to me about the TV commercials I've seen is that director Rob Reiner's name is noticeably not used as a selling point. It wasn't that long ago that the phrase "A Rob Reiner Film" indicated a good thing. With Rumor Has It..., I didn't even realize Reiner was involved in it until I read the small print. That seeming reticence to promote the film with his name is yet another step in the Sad Decline of Rob Reiner. (The fact that Kevin Costner is relegated to second billing, under the totally-unsuited-for-the-big-screen Aniston, will have to wait for Costner's own Sad Decline post.)

Reiner began his theatrical film career with what I, and I think many, many others, would consider a phenomenal series of unqualified successes. Right out of the gate, he helmed This Is Spinal Tap, which is undoubtedly one of the funniest, most quoted, and most influential film comedies of all time. If you've never used the lines "These go to eleven" and "Hello, Cleveland!" in your real life -- well, frankly, I think you're lying. That's like trying to say you've never said, "And don't call me Shirley." Even if you've never seen the film, you use those lines -- that's how deeply ingrained in pop culture this movie has become. Pure brilliance.

Next up was The Sure Thing, which may not be on quite the same plane as Spinal Tap, but which certainly transcended its teen sex comedy plot to become a romantic comedy gem, and made a star out of John Cusack. It also introduced the world to Nicollette Sheridan, back when she still owned some of her original parts.

Then there was Stand By Me, which, up until The Shawshank Redemption, was the one Stephen King film that people who hated Stephen King could love. Same thing with people who hated kids in movies. What a set of great performances from those four young actors (not to mention Kiefer Sutherland's first big break). Man, in 1986, who would've thought that by 2005, of the four leads, the little fat kid would have the most successful acting career?

In 1987, Reiner directed The Princess Bride, which probably equals Spinal Tap in quotability ("Inconceivable!") and sheer fan devotion. It's pretty amazing how varied his first four films are, and how well they all work. Sure, they're all comedic, but the first basically invents (or at least refines and brings to the mainstream) the mockumentary genre; the second is teen sex; the third is coming-of-age mixed with horror; and the fourth is fantasy. And they're all wonderful.

Next, Reiner achieved his biggest financial and critical success to that point, and moved onto the A-list of directors, with When Harry Met Sally.... Along with Sleepless in Seattle (which Reiner didn't direct -- but he acted in it!), this is probably the epitome of the modern romantic comedy. It was a chick flick that guys loved, too. Probably for Meg Ryan's diner scene.

A second Stephen King adaptation was next: Misery was another hit, and it was the first of Reiner's films to actually win an Academy Award. In a bit of an upset, Kathy Bates won for Best Actress (beating Meryl Streep, among others), which made her career.

In 1992, he delivered his biggest box office hit, with the biggest all-star cast he'd ever worked with, A Few Good Men. That is seven -- seven -- great films in a row. Not all of them were huge moneymakers, and some are more memorable than others (specifically, I'm thinking some would exclude The Sure Thing from a list of "greats" -- but screw them! I love that movie!). But a string of seven films like that -- I would go so far as to say that's a feat unmatched by nearly any director in the history of film. That's right, I said it! You can't handle the truth! No truth-handler, you! Bah! I deride your truth-handling abilities!

And then, riding the highest peak of his career, as one of the biggest names in the film industry, able to work with any actor he wanted, able to choose from any script in Hollywood, with the unquestioned ability to do literally anything he wanted to do... he made North.

North is Reiner's Ishtar. It's his Heaven's Gate, his Waterworld. A great big picture that became a legendary flop. And it inspired the most awesomely negative review ever written, from Roger Ebert. Here's a taste:

I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.... "North" is a bad film - one of the worst movies ever made.
AWESOME! That cracks me up every single time.

North was a huge critical and financial failure, and one I would suggest Reiner never truly recovered from. With his next project, The American President, Reiner had the good sense to re-team with the writer of A Few Good Men, Aaron Sorkin. This was another great film -- smart, funny, passionate, and the obvious inspiration for Sorkin's The West Wing -- and it brought Reiner's record up to a respectable 8 and 1. Eight great films, one big ol' stinker. Not bad, right? But the problem was (or part of it, anyway) in Hollywood, you're only as good as your last film. Despite its overall quality, and its critical praise, the film was a relative box office failure. According to IMDb, it grossed $65 million in the U.S. -- but its budget was $62 million. And that's before marketing costs. (And as disappointing as that is, Reiner's subsequent films have yet to come anywhere near making that much money.) That was two missteps in a row -- one major, one minor -- which was more than enough to take the polish off the apple.

Next was Ghosts of Mississippi, which was a decent enough film, with a great, creepily menacing performance from James Woods, but it fell squarely in the "whitey saves the black man" genre (epitomized in the modern era by Mississippi Burning). Those films may be well-meaning, but they always come across more as patronizing, bordering on insulting. Here, whitey was played by Alec Baldwin, as the lawyer determined to bring Medgar Evers' killer to justice. Despite an Oscar nomination for Woods, the film tanked financially.

Reiner didn't release another theatrical feature for three years, and when The Story of Us hit the screen in 1999, you had to wonder, "This is what took so long?" Another huge misfire -- not quite of North proportions, but still. Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer were never heard from again.

Reiner took four years for his next film, and if Alex & Emma was the best he could come up with, he might as well have waited another four years. He wasn't even working with A-list stars anymore; instead, he had Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson. Early on in his career, he used to make stars out of up-and-comers like Cusack and Bates. Now B-listers Wilson and Hudson appeared to be slumming by appearing in a Reiner film. The thought wasn't, "Will this film make their careers?" but rather, "Will their careers survive this film?" It barely cleared $14 million in the U.S., which, in 2003, is more what you'd expect a fourth sequel to a really bad horror movie to gross. Not a Rob Reiner film.

And now we come to Rumor Has It.... Bad buzz, little advance marketing, no mention of Reiner. Hell, this project wasn't even Reiner's to begin with -- he took over from writer Ted Griffin, who had been set to direct. An A-list director should not be taking sloppy seconds. But then, Reiner is no longer an A-list director, is he?

In film, a short string of disappointments is far more damning than a long string of successes is uplifting. These days, Reiner smells pretty strongly of "has-been." Which is a shame. I'm still rooting for the guy -- as misguided as Rumor Has It... seems, I'm still rooting for it to succeed. (It won't.) As poor as the latter half of his career has been, I believe Reiner still has vast reserves of talent. I think he's still got a great, blockbuster film (or two, or three) in him. I just wish he'd get around to making it, already.

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