This column is dedicated to artists who were cruising along successfully in terms of their chosen field, only to be derailed at some point in their career. The question must be asked: What Happened?
From 1984, when he delivered what I think to be not only his masterpiece, but a candidate for Best Comedy of All Time- I’m talking about This is Spinal Tap, by the way- to 1992, when he directed A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner put together one of the best runs of any director. Take a look at the movies he directed between those two, taking note of not only the quality, but the diversity as well: The Sure Thing (1985), Stand By Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally…(1989), and Misery (1990).
Seven movies in less than a decade, each with their own special sauce. That’s the thing about this Reiner era- he wasn’t repeating himself. Not one of the titles mentioned shares any DNA with the others. We are used to directors developing a style and then sticking with it- you can always recognize a Quentin Tarantino movie, for instance- but Reiner was almost invisible directorially. Because of this, he may not get the acclaim and credit that he probably deserves.
And he does deserve credit, especially as an innovator. With Spinal Tap, he (along with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) created the “mockumentary” which has now been popularized in film (the rest of the Christopher Guest movies) and television (Modern Family, The Office, Parks and Recreation). Movies like Shrek, and probably many of the recent Pixar movies, wouldn’t be possible without The Princess Bride, which set the template for fairy tales that are for both children and adults.
Even when he wasn’t reinventing the wheel, he glossed up and prettified some stale genres, such as teen movies (The Sure Thing), Woody Allen-type movies (When Harry Met Sally…), courtroom dramas (A Few Good Men), and movies based on Stephen King stories (Stand By Me, Misery). Within these established genres, he was able to deliver some fairly memorable stuff, like Sally’s fake orgasm in the deli, or lines that have entered popular culture, like “You can’t handle the truth!” Oh, and he directed Kathy Bates to a Best Actress Oscar for Misery as well.
Not bad for any director, much less Meathead from All in the Family. As Big Ern McKracken once said, Reiner was on a gravy train with biscuit wheels. Then… 1994 and North. The movie that Ebert not only gave zero stars, but also used a clip from the review to title his book I Hate, Hate, Hate, Hated This Movie. It also tanked with audiences, earning $7 million on a $40 million budget.
He bounced back (slightly) with his next movie, The American President, but, to quote Trainspotting’s Sickboy, it was a blip on an otherwise downward trajectory. Ghosts of Mississippi seemed like an Oscar grab, miscasting Alec Baldwin during his awkward transition from Stage 1 of his career (leading man) to Stage 2 (comedian). The Story of Us I remember mainly because they used the song Classical Gas in the trailers, and that my supposed refusal to return it to 20/20 Video got me banned from the store.
Alex and Emma? Rumor Has It? This from the guy who brought Nigel Tufnel into our lives? At least The Bucket List was a hit, although it may be the biggest piece of shit in the entire Reiner canon. The good news is that Rob Reiner seems like a relatively jolly customer, and I doubt he is sweating what I deem to be his downfall. His next movie, Flipped, looks like it is trying to capture some of that Stand By Me magic, and I really hope it does. I’d like to see Reiner back on top again.