This Is Spinal Tap , The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally, Misery -- if Rob Reiner's filmography stopped there we'd probably consider him one of America's great pop directors. These films aren't just good -- some are beloved classics. This Is Spinal Tap in particular stands as a cultural milestone, a legitimate masterpiece.
But Reiner's career did not stop there. While not necessarily prolific, Rob Reiner has enjoyed a steady directing career ever since his 1984 debut. A new Rob Reiner film comes out every two or three years, but chances are you don't even know he directed them. You might not even remember that they exist at all.
That's because they are not movies made with film fans in mind. At some point, and for whatever reason, Rob Reiner turned into a populist softy, producing stock, inoffensive material tailored almost exclusively for elderly folks who only see a handful of movies a year.
My task was to watch Reiner's later films and discover some silver lining within them. Perhaps with a mindset free from prejudice I might excavate some hidden thematic through-line to explain how Rob Reiner could go from being one of the most reliable directors out there (regardless of genre) to one of the most reliably worst (regardless of genre), while still being the kind of guy who can deliver such a wonderfully ribald performance in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
But I couldn't do it. There is nothing going on in these films. A couple of them manage to charm enough to be harmless. If you squint you can see Reiner revisiting tropes he utilized earlier in his career, but they are shadows. At the end of the day, Rob Reiner is basically another Ron Howard, except Ron Howard occasionally kicks ass.
The last time I anticipated a Rob Reiner film simply for being a Rob Reiner film was the lead up to 1999's The Story of Us. The idea of watching the ups and downs of a rocky marriage between Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer as told by the director of When Harry Met Sally seemed like a slam dunk. It wasn't. The Story of Us, like a lot of these films, suffers from lack of character and a sitcom-level realism that keeps real emotional connection at an arm's length.
But at least it had Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer. Reiner's next stab at romance, Alex and Emma, trades down these titans for the aww shucks blandness of Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson. Rather than watch a relationship fall apart over several decades, we supposedly witness one blossom over the course of a month as Wilson dictates a novel while Hudson types. Reiner frequently cuts to a dramatization of the novel itself, which Wilson and Hudson freely interrupt and amend, much like Fred Savage and Peter Falk in The Princess Bride. But this film is nowhere near that clever. Alex and Emma make all the jokes we expect them to make, their relationship goes through the standard motions, and there's not a single spark of creativity, save for Reiner's casting of himself as Wilson's agent/publisher/whatever he is.
Probably the best film of the bunch is 2005's Rumor Has It... thanks to a great cast (including an effortlessly awesome Shirley MacLaine), a truly wacky premise (Jennifer Aniston suspects she may be the product of the sexual union made famous by The Graduate), and a brief flirtation with some stone cold incest. The film isn't necessarily awful, it just lacks life, a crime considering its huge comedy potential. Furthermore, it fully participates in the strange and unfortunate tradition common to female-centric stories in which protagonists make awful moral decisions that hold them back from likability while asking us to accept such villainous behavior as normal. In this case, Jennifer Aniston can't decide if she's truly ready to marry nice guy Mark Ruffalo until she's cheated on him with the astoundingly rich Kevin Costner (who might be her dad). On second thought, Rumor Has It... is amazing.
After that we run into The Bucket List. You know about The Bucket List. But have you actually seen The Bucket List? It is quite possibly the most John Travolta movie ever made, and John Travolta's not even in it. To give you an idea of how embarrassing it feels, just imagine Jack Nicholson strutting his way through a million gay panic jokes in Wild Hogs, and you get the idea. Having said that, it's not so bad.
Finally there's Flipped, a movie I had never even heard of. Flipped takes us through the adorable ups and downs of an adorable childhood romance between two adorable preteens in the adorable 1960s. It is adorable. But it is also very boring and as a nostalgic period piece absolutely pales in comparison to Reiner's amazing Stand By Me. The only real noteworthy thing going for it is Aidan Quinn's performance, which hilariously alternates between heartwarming magnanimity and blistering anger.
These films actually have very little in common. They feature wildly different stories and shoot for a variety of tones. The only consistent element between them is a kind of laziness. None care to delve any deeper than their most surface level entertainment requirements. It is with this in mind that I turn to the one later Rob Reiner film not listed above: North.
For many, North is the definitive turning point in Reiner's career. No matter how bad a movie he delivers from now unto the end of time, none will surpass North's notoriety. But here's the thing: I kind of liked North, especially after watching all these other films. It's a bad movie; there's no doubt about that. But it's also a weird movie, one committed to its tone enough to go out on a couple of limbs it probably should have avoided. The reason we all know about North is that it has memorable elements: Elijah Wood, a ton of cameos, a bizarre fantasy plot filled with accidentally creepy sentiments. It's awful, but it's not lazy or boring like these other entries.
So, for lack of any better answer, I propose that North broke Rob Reiner. Emboldened by the impossibility of any experiment that could be wrong, I feel that, had North been just a regular old flop rather than a brief poster child for the worst cinema ever created, we might have kept the good Rob Reiner a bit longer than we did. And the world would have been a better place.
And let's not forget that we still have Rob Reiner the actor. I'll take a million Bucket Lists if it means another performance like the one he gave in The Wolf of Wall Street. In fact, hearing Rob Reiner discuss his tastes regarding female pubic hair was once on my bucket list. Not anymore!
This was originally published in our all-Spinal Tap issue of Birth.Movies.Death. Pick one up in the lobby of your Alamo Drafthouse or read it online, and catch This is Spinal Tap at the Alamo this month!