Thursday, November 18, 2010

A realization about Rob Reiner

My friend Don, who was visiting for the weekend from Chicago, and I were leaving Amoeba Music in Hollywood on Sunday night when the conversation turned to Rob Reiner. It had actually started on Ron Howard, because I had just picked up a nice-looking (albeit used) collector's edition DVD of Apollo 13 for $5.99. (It was a space-themed evening -- I also finally bought Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest.) For his part, Don bought Bram Stoker's Dracula on BluRay and some music.

The apparent similarities between Howard and Reiner -- both former TV stars who had gone on to careers as highly respected directors -- was what caused us to wander into Reiner territory. Our initial thesis was that Howard might be the greater director. After all, he'd won an Oscar, and he continues to release prestige films. Whereas Reiner's last decade has been kind of the opposite, composed of moderate misfires (Rumor Has It ...), major misfires (Alex & Emma) and popular schlock (The Bucket List).

But it was when we started to review Reiner's older work that it hit us like a smack in the forehead:

Rob Reiner may have had the greatest decade for any director of any era. And he did most of it in five years.

If you start with his directorial debut in 1984 -- This Is Spinal Tap, which could be one of the best first movies ever -- and go forward, Reiner was absolutely on fire for the next five to ten years. Not only that, but every movie he made could be described as one of the best versions of that movie ever made -- even still today.

Shall we take a look?

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) might be the best mockumentary ever made.

Argument: Hardcore film lovers may cite a dozen examples to the contrary, but you could even say that Rob Reiner invented the mockumentary. What's certainly true is that Christopher Guest's participation in this film inspired him to reshape his whole career as a series of increasingly less brilliant mockumentaries. Nothing is less than 100% brilliant in This Is Spinal Tap. In fact, it's so great that I don't need to go into an in-depth description of why it's so great, because you already know. But I will mention Don's interesting perspective on its greatness, which is that you can see the characters thinking. When Nigel Tufnel (Guest) makes one of his inane comments, he's not just reading his lines (in part because a bunch of this stuff was improvised). You can actually see the wheels turning in his head as he answers each question, and that's part of what makes it such a fully realized, spot-on satire.

The Sure Thing (1985) might be the best road movie ever made.

Argument: Or it might not. In fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't. But the rest of the movies after this fit the format, so go with me on this. The Sure Thing is definitely a really good road movie, and as a result of the age I was when I saw it (about 13 or 14), it sticks out to me as one of the first films I think of when you talk about road movies. It's full of classic scenes involving the various modes of transport John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga use to cross the country, like Cusack freaking out the pervert who picks up Zuniga hitchhiking, and Cusack clashing with the pair of show-tune singers (one of whom is Tim Robbins). It's especially nice as it had the function of serving as Cusack's breakout role.

Stand by Me (1986) might be the best coming-of-age movie ever made.

Argument: Who in my generation doesn't think of Stand by Me when they think of coming-of-age movies? I'd like to think that this extends outward to other generations, but I'd probably be wrong about that. After all, today's teens probably see Twilight as a coming-of-age movie. But in terms of purity of form, Stand by Me takes the cake. Few films deal so intensely with the transition between childhood and adulthood, as Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern are caught between the innocence of childhood play and the seriousness of death, which confronts them in the form of a corpse, older bullies who fight with knives, and a train that may flatten them like pancakes. It might also be one of the best period pieces ever made, with its great 50s soundtrack.

The Princess Bride (1987) might be the best storybook romance ever made.

Argument: Or should it be called a romantic fantasy? A fantasy comedy? A romantic storybook comedy? However you choose to categorize it, The Princess Bride hits every note perfectly. It introduced a slew of iconic characters, a boatload of quotable lines, and one of the most delightful forms of "damsel in distress" escapism you are likely to find on film. Do you remember how you felt after you first saw The Princess Bride? There you go. I'll leave it at that because there just isn't much more to say.

When Harry Met Sally ... (1989) might be the best romantic comedy ever made.

Argument: And here is the really big one. All the other genres I've discussed have relatively few entries compared to the number of movies that could be described as romantic comedies. And yet this movie could still be considered the best romantic comedy of all time -- I'm not even sure what the other top contenders would be, since there are few romantic comedies that everyone can agree are as perfect as this. Granted, this is again showing the bias of the era in which I came of age, which may be inescapable -- there are certainly classic romantic comedies by the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy that older viewers would probably consider their favorites. But When Harry Met Sally is almost certainly the king of modern romantic comedies, and you might even say its stamp is evident on many if not most of the romantic comedies that followed. Again, I don't need to tell you why.

Misery (1990) might be the best Stephen King adaptation ever made.

Argument: Okay, now I know I'm wrong -- especially since Reiner himself has made a better Stephen King adaptation (Stand by Me). However, the best film adaptations of King's novels tend to be either non-horrors (both Stand by Me and one of my favorite films of all time, The Shawshank Redemption) or horror adaptations in which the writer or director took liberties with King's work (The Shining). But could Misery be the best faithful adaptation of a horror by Stephen King? Perhaps.

A Few Good Men (1992) might be the best movie in which Jack Nicholson shouts "You can't handle the truth!" ever made.

Argument: Okay, now I'm kidding.

But this is a good place to leave off, because Reiner's next film was the infamous bomb North. He did follow that with the excellent The American President (best movie ever about the president? Nah) and the pretty-good Ghosts of Mississippi, but that's the last time Reiner has met with pretty much universal critical acclaim. (I absolutely love The Story of Us, but I know I'm in the minority.)

What's amazing about this period of 1984 to 1990 is not only how prolific he was during it, and not only how successful each film was, but how comfortably he shifted between genres. As is evident in the way I've structured this piece, talking about genres, Reiner never repeated himself during this period -- in fact, I don't know that you could say any two of the films are even somewhat similar to each other.

It's an interesting realization especially when compared and contrasted to yesterday's discussion of Danny Boyle, who is also constantly reinventing himself. If you lined up 20 film bloggers and asked them which one is the better director, Boyle or Reiner, you'd probably get 18 for Boyle and two for Reiner.

But I might be one of the two. I mean, just look at those titles. Granted, Reiner's films from the 1980s have had more of a chance to endure in the zeitgeist and stake their claims as classics, and his films are all accessible in a way that Boyle's films aren't even trying to be. But it's being uncharitable and just plain wrong to dismiss Reiner as simply a populist director. Making films for the masses that are also as smart as Reiner's films is a true challenge indeed. In a way, you could say that "anyone" can make an arsty film with a potentially narrow target audience -- and Boyle may be among the best at that, considering that his artistically credible films have also managed to find a pretty big audience. But making films that please both the studios and almost any film fans you ask, from the least discriminating to the most? That's a special talent. Because most of the time you are going to piss off serious fans by pandering to the masses. However, I don't think there are many serious film fans who would find fault with This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally or Misery. And This Is Spinal Tap, in its own way, might be more subversive than anything even Boyle has ever made.

I just think it's important not to let a "what have you done for me lately?" mentality cause us to forget or discount the kind of greatness that Rob Reiner demonstrated during those incredible 6+ years. Any director would be proud to have six titles as good as those on his CV. I'm not even sure if the best six films of Steven Spielberg of Martin Scorsese are as universally well-liked as those six films. Of course, I could also be getting carried away.

However, I think Reiner deserves a little excess enthusiasm. In recent years, the man has turned into something of a figure of ridicule, and not just because he's been on a losing streak in the director's chair. His most prominent recent appearance in pop culture may have been on South Park, where Trey Parker and Matt Stone eviscerated him, making him out to be a self-righteous liberal ideologue stuffing his face with food in every shot.

Well, that self-righteous liberal ideologue stuffing his face with food may just be one of the most influential directors of all time.

Or at the very least, a guy with an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.


Don Handsome said...

One thing that I’ve been thinking about since we started talking about Reiner the other night is his voice. His voice leaves a stamp on many of those early films. I grew up before seeing Spinal Tap on reruns of All In The Family and I think maybe I just learned Reiner’s inflections very well from that show. So when I saw Spinal Tap for the first time I was entranced Reiner’s voice throughout as Marty DiBergi the documentarian. But obviously his voice is not a literal presence in all of those great films, but I’d argue that it definitely makes its way into the speech patterns shown in all of them. And therefore maybe its because those speech patterns feel so naturalistic, realistic, and comfortable that the films you list are so damn great. They feel inhabited and true.

His later works don’t tend to feel this way. On the plane back to Chicago, I saw Flipped. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it was nothing compared to a Reiner film of the 80s. Actually, it tries to strattle two of the types discussed from the 80s – it’s a cross between Stand By Me and When Harry Met Sally. It’s a Coming of Age Romantic Comedy set in the 60s. Again, its not terrible, but its lacking something. Its lacking a lived in quality, its lacking stakes, and its lacking soul. Maybe that’s because Reiner’s lost his voice.

Who wouldn’t be afraid to speak when every word is being pigeonholed as fat liberal whining? Rob Reiner may be who (maybe he’s not as gutsy as Michael Moore in that way). Its hard for me to believe that he could have lost his confidence to speak with his films like he used to so I’m sure that there are other things at play here as well, but maybe the old sensitive liberal Meathead has finally been compromised by the angry complaining of the Archie Bunkers of the world. Maybe he just lost his nerve and can’t put his heart into it anymore. Its our loss.

Don Handsome said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Lippert said...

What's a shame is that Flipped was his best movie in years and no one saw it because it was barely even released wheras crap like the Bucket List draws a big audience.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

The Sure Thing is my favorite movie. Yes it's dated, but it totally rocks.

The Princess Bride is in my top 5 also.

Vancetastic said...


Interesting idea about Reiner potentially losing his voice. I do think it's possible he was bullied by Archie Bunkers into humility, but I also know that this characterization of him on South Park materialized in the last couple years, probably even after The Bucket List. So we'd only be seeing his loss of voice in Flipped, which I haven't seen yet. Great observation about how his voice links these seemingly dissimilar projects -- just one example of how I value your perspective on film, as it deepens observations that I may be making at a more surface level.


Glad to hear that Flipped was as good as you say it is. Maybe you and Don can fight about its relative worth. Can we all agree that Alex & Emma was terrible, though?


Wow, that's high praise for The Sure Thing. I knew you loved it but I didn't know you would actually call it your favorite of all time. I like that as a favorite, however. It feels more unique than having something like Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Empire Strikes Back as a favorite movie. That's something I'm currently struggling with as I re-rank my movies on Flickchart. It's admittedly early, but Back to the Future is #1, and it feels like a bit of a cliche.