Underrated: Rob Reiner

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Rob Reiner has directed some of the best loved films ever made.

He has mastered different genres to such an extent that you might not have realised that some of his films were even made by the same person. Who would, after all, assume A Few Good Men was linked to This is Spinal Tap? Or that Misery had anything to do with The Princess Bride? Or even that When Harry Met Sally was directed by the same man as Stand By Me?

Reiner directed them all.

Reiner has a long background in comedy. His father Carl Reiner was a noted US comedy star (now in his nineties) and directed the Steve Martin classic The Man With Two Brains. And like Ron Howard, Rob Reiner was a familiar face to US TV audiences long before he became a director. He was a regular on the long-running Seventies US comedy show, All In The Family. This is reflected in the fact that a good number of Reiner’s films have been comedies.

Just take a look at this list of Reiner’s incredible output between 1984 and 1996. Chances are, at least one of your favourite movies will be here:

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Reiner himself plays interviewer/director Marty DiBergi in this celebrated rock documentary parody about a fictional English band famed for their punctuality and their tendency to lose drummers: one spontaneously combusts on stage. Another chokes to death on vomit (somebody else’s vomit).

Nigel: “It really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it?”
David: “Too much. There’s too much fucking perspective now”.

The Sure Thing (1985)

A lesser spotted Reiner but still very much a cult favourite, this stars John Cusack and future ER actor, Anthony Edwards and centres round a college road trip.

Stand By Me (1986)

Funny, poignant and moving, this coming of age drama based on a Stephen King novella (The Body), actually improves on its source material in its depiction of four boys embarking on a macabre camping expedition into the woods to see the body of a local boy in the 1950s. With great performances from its young cast and a number of classic scenes, this is Reiner’s greatest film.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesusdoes anyone?”

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The Princess Bride (1987)

Inconceivable! But true. Rob Reiner also directed this hilarious and wonderful fairy tale which features everyone from Robin Wright, Peter Cook, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, Andre the Giant to Peter Falk.

“Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”.

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When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Famous for launching Meg Ryan’s decade of stardom and for “that scene” (Reiner’s late mother is the one who says “I’ll have what she’s having”), this Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy is endlessly watchable.

“When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.”

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Misery (1990)

Reiner’s second crack at Stephen King features a chilling Oscar winning turn by Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes the “Number One fan” of unfortunate writer and captive Paul Sheldon (James Caan). By my reckoning, two of the four best Stephen King adaptations are by Reiner (the others would be Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). Which isn’t bad going.

“I thought you were good Paul… but you’re not good. You’re just another lying ol’ dirty birdy”.

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A Few Good Men (1992)

Courtroom drama starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and an Aaron Sorkin script. Reiner’s biggest ever box office hit.

Col. Jessup: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I WANT THE TRUTH!

Col. Jessup: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

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North (1994)

The big exception during this period, this all star comedy was a total flop and is often rated as one of the worst films ever. Reiner, arguably, has never fully recovered from this. The critic Roger Ebert famously opined: “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.”

The American President (1996)

Aaron Sorkin again with a film that effectively launched Michael J. Fox’s late Nineties Spin City TV comeback and foreshadowed Sorkin’s huge TV hit The West Wing. US president and widower Michael Douglas woos lobbyist Annette Bening. Fairly unambiguously aimed at helping President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, this is still a good, if perhaps not great film.

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Even ignoring North, it’s an incredible record. I make that six iconic great films in the space of a decade (Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men). Compare this to James Cameron who directed four iconic films over the same period (the two Terminators, Aliens and if you’re feeling generous, True Lies).  Fellow ex-sitcom star Ron Howard directed Splash in 1984 and then ten other movies over the same period up to 1996. Only one of these, Apollo 13, could conceivably described as “great”. So Reiner did very well indeed.

Why then is Rob Reiner not held in higher regard?

There are several reasons:

  1. He has genuinely gone off the boil since the mid-Nineties: there’s no denying this. With the possible exceptions of The Bucket List in 2008 (which is only okay), Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story Of Us, Rumor Has It… Alex & Emma and The Magic of Belle Isle were all total duds.
  2. The fact that his films are so different from each other is to Reiner’s credit. However, his successes have been so diverse that he has probably suffered from the fact that he is hard to pin down. What is a typical Rob Reiner film? This is difficult to say.
  3. His politics may have harmed him. South Park ridiculed him for his anti-smoking stance. He has campaigned for Al Gore, Howard Dean and still campaigns for Hillary Clinton. None of these presidential campaigns was successful.
  4. Even his successes were not always huge box office smashes. Even Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride were only modest hits at the time.
  5. Unusually, Reiner’s screenwriters – Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman have often received more credit for his films than he has. All were admittedly great.

But credit where credit’s due, Rob Reiner: six great films. That’s six more than most directors manage in a lifetime.

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Media manifesto

Ten great ideas to transform the world of TV, film and music…

  1. A new series of 24 should be made in which Donald Sutherland plays Jack Bauer’s evil estranged father.
  2. A new Bond film should be made in which an elderly Bond played by Sean Connery is called out of retirement for a final mission.
  3. All theme tunes should include a version which includes the title amongst the lyrics in the manner of Anita Dobson’s Anyone Can Fall In Love (for EastEnders) if they do not already do so. Particularly: Star Wars, the 70s and 80s Superman films, Coronation Street and Last of the Summer Wine.
  4. Why Do You Think You Are? A new documentary series which forces celebrities to justify their existence.
  5. None of the Carry On films (with the possible exception of the first one Carry On Sergeant and the later Carry On Regardless) feature any characters saying the title of the film at any point. This is disappointing. Digital technology should be used to insert a character (perhaps Charles Hawtrey) saying the line at the end. This should occur even when Hawtrey is not actually in the film, regardless of whether the film is in colour or not or whether the film’s title makes grammatical sense (as with Carry On Follow That Camel or Carry On Again Doctor).
  6. Some films and TV shows feature characters who have the same name as the actor playing them e.g. Jack Torrance (Nicholson) in The Shining, Rik (Mayall) in The Young Ones and Miranda (Hart). This should be made compulsory for one character in every production from now on as it will reduce time wasted by actors missing their cues.
  7. The use of robot voices in songs, such as in ‘Something Good’ by the Utah Saints, once commonplace, have sadly become a rarity. All songs past and present should feature a robot voice at some point including instrumental classical pieces. Please sort this out.
  8. Films in which samples of dialogue are used as the title are always rubbish and should be banned. Consider: Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, Slap Her She’s French, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot and the obscure Dustin Hoffman film Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me? An exception should be made for Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (and all Carry On films: see above).
  9. Doctors In The House: New sitcom in which all the surviving ex-Doctor Whos plus K9 share a house in London. Tom Baker is the zany one and is constantly frustrated when the other characters interrupt his attempts to narrate each episode. David Tennant is the charming likeable one. Christopher Eccleston is the moody, artistic one. Colin Baker is the pompous one. His glasses are occasionally knocked out of line rather like Captain Mainwaring’s. An old Tardis is used as the house phone which forms a central part of the set as does a dartboard with a photo of Matt Smith’s face attached to it. In episode one, a family of Daleks move in next door.
  10. Not A Penny Moore… New sitcom about the Moore family. Demi is the cougar of the household, desperately competing with her younger sister Mandy. Roger plays the elderly granddad, wheelchair-bound and always with his cat. Alan plays the moody bearded uncle who rarely leaves his room. The late Sir Patrick Moore plays the eccentric great uncle perpetually spying on his neighbours through his telescope in the attic who he suspects of being German. He is constantly bothered by young children looking for cheats for Zelda III.

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