Every director has his or her peaks and valleys, but Rob Reiner’s career has risen so high and fallen so low that you get vertigo just thinking about it. During his peak, he churned out intelligent studio smash hits like it was the easiest thing in the world; at his lowest, you wondered how in the world anyone thought it was smart to give this guy money to make a movie. Reiner could be called a journeyman director, except what kind of journeyman director could make a movie as confident as When Harry Met Sally, or as anarchic as This Is Spinal Tap, or one that juggles as many tones as The Princess Bride? Reiner’s career is so up and down it’s nearly impossible to classify.
Like Ron Howard, Reiner came out of television, and there’s a segment of the population that will know him forever as “Meathead.” There’s another segment that knows him as a bastion of liberal politics, which got him skewered on South Park a full generation ago. But for a stretch of nearly a decade, Reiner was part Frank Capra, part Billy Wilder. It all got away from him, but in recent years, he has shown a hankering to try different projects — projects that bring him at least a little closer to the star he once was.
With the release of Shock and Awe, his 20th theatrically released film, we look back at Reiner’s career. There’s plenty of debate about the top seven or eight films. Below those? Good luck if you can even remember any of them.
20. North (1994)
The rare movie in which a review of it — Roger Ebert’s infamous pan, which stated, simply, “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.” — has become more well-known than the film itself, and boy, is Reiner fortunate there. Nearly 25 years later, North is just as bad as Ebert wrote, an astoundingly wrongheaded concept executed in the most mealy-mouthed, limp way possible. Reiner attempts to combine whimsy, satire, and Capra-esque corniness here in a way that is nearly impossible to sit through, and if that weren’t enough, it has Bruce Willis as the Easter bunny that is worse than anything in Hudson Hawk. If anything, Ebert was being too nice.
19. The Magic of Belle Isle (2012)
In his later years, Reiner has focused on films about aging characters who have lost loved ones and are trying to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. After hitting commercial pay dirt with 2007’s The Bucket List, he reteamed with Morgan Freeman for this exceedingly maudlin comedy-drama about an alcoholic writer whose artistic muse has abandoned him. Confined to a wheelchair and grieving for his wife, he moves to a small town, where he is conveniently living next to the vivacious Virginia Madsen and her programmatically adorable three daughters. Cliché upon cliché, The Magic of Belle Isle rests heavy on the considerable charm of its actors and the utterly somnolent predictability of the storytelling. Older viewers have a right to complain that not enough Hollywood films address their reality — but they still deserve far better than this.
18. Alex and Emma (2003)
This was around the time when you began to wonder what, exactly, Reiner was even trying to do. This is a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy about a novelist (Luke Wilson) who has to finish a novel in 30 days to pay off a Mafia debt (…okay?), so he hires a stenographer (Kate Hudson) to write down his notes as the novel they create is acted out by Wilson and Hudson. This might have been an attempt to go after a nature-of-storytelling tale like The Princess Bride, but the two leads have zero chemistry and Reiner’s execution is clunky and disinterested. This movie will not make you miss the rom-com.
17. The Story of Us (1999)
With When Harry Met Sally, Reiner made a great romantic comedy about falling in love, but with The Story of Us, he set his sights on something perhaps far more ambitious and rarer at the movies: a story about a longtime married couple trying to navigate through a rough patch. Alas, this comedy-drama doesn’t just lack that previous film’s Zeitgeist-channeling observations about love — it also doesn’t have a compelling Harry or Sally. Instead, we have Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer playing a sitcom version of a married couple, their story told through flashbacks as we see how their relationship ebbed and flowed. Reiner had a Midas touch for years, but The Story of Us was the third of four clunkers in a row for him — and more proof that his once-formidable ability to tap into universal themes was starting to slip away.
16. And So It Goes (2014)
Reiner’s first pairing with Michael Douglas was the utterly charming The American President. Their second was this painful rom-com in which Douglas plays a cranky, self-absorbed realtor who, naturally, only became such an SOB because of his beloved wife’s death. But after a series of lame, convoluted plot twists, he receives what every movie character like this gets: redemption, in the form of a granddaughter he didn’t know he had. Diane Keaton plays his neighbor, also a widow, who reluctantly helps him raise the kid — and, wouldn’t you know it, she starts to fall for this crab apple along the way. As generic as its title, And So It Goes strands two very talented actors in an irritatingly cutesy comedy that shies away from real pathos and insight.
15. Rumor Has It (2005)
If you are going to have your movie draw comparisons to The Graduate, well, you better put in the appropriate effort — and you shouldn’t have as many behind-the-scenes problems as this debacle accrued. (Famously, Rumor Has It’s original director, Ted Griffin, was fired by the studio and replaced by Reiner.) Jennifer Aniston plays an obituary writer for the New York Times who discovers her grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) might have been the inspiration for Mrs. Robinson — and then she has an affair with the man who might have inspired Benjamin Braddock. (Though in this version, he’s played by Kevin Costner.) All this Graduate talk might make you think this is going to be as smart and caustic as the original, but Rumor Has It has no actual interest in the Mike Nichols classic: It’s just an excuse for a pained “zany” comedy that wastes a terrific cast (including Mark Ruffalo back when Mark Ruffalo was making romantic comedies). You keep that Graduate out of your mouth, Rumor Has It.
14. Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)
It’s the movie that inspired Godfrey Cheshire’s brilliant observation about ’90s movies depicting the civil-rights era: “When future generations turn to this era’s movies for an account of the struggles for racial justice in America, they’ll learn the surprising lesson that such battles were fought and won by square-jawed white guys.” This is one of the worst of them, with Alec Baldwin bravely fighting to bring Medgar Evers’s assassin to justice while Whoopi Goldberg cheers him on and cries. It’s as lazy an approach to this material as you can come up with, and, as tended to be the case for him in this period, Reiner was late on the trigger: These sorts of movies were fading fast. One odd byproduct: Twenty years after the fact, James Woods’s dark performance as a virulent racist looks a lot like the real James Woods.
13. Flipped (2010)
It sure does take a long time going through Reiner’s filmography to get to the good ones, doesn’t it? This is actually better than some of the hackneyed rom-coms Reiner muddled through, a coming-of-age story about two kids’ pseudo-love story from grade school through middle school. The movie is so earnest you can’t really hate — so vanilla and cheerful that it dares you to be churlish about it. But Reiner has lost any edge he might have had in the Stand by Me years, and this childhood portrait feels safe and scrubbed. Flipped may not be terrible, but it’s instantly forgettable.
12. Shock and Awe (2018)
Abundantly worthy subject matter undone by unfailingly mediocre execution, Shock and Awe continues Reiner’s recent interest in true-life political drama. Like LBJ, this newspaper thriller stars Woody Harrelson, who plays Jonathan Landay, a Knight Ridder reporter who, alongside fellow journalist Warren Strobel (James Marsden), is determined to expose the lies that the George W. Bush administration were peddling in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. The denigration of a free press, the uprising of a corrupt Republican regime, the distortion of reality: If you think Shock and Awe is as much about 2018 as it is 2003, then you’re on the same wavelength as Reiner’s virtuous film. But despite Harrelson and Marsden’s agreeably give-’em-hell performances, Shock and Awe suffers in comparison not just to All the President’s Men but to 2017’s The Post. (Reiner’s main characters even acknowledge their Woodward-and-Bernstein cosplay.) Cast and crew are emotionally invested in the urgency of the material, but the bland competency of the whole affair saps it of power. If anything, Shock and Awe mostly reminds you how futile living in the madness of a Fake News world can be.
11. Being Charlie (2016)
Without question Reiner’s most personal movie, this is the story of a rich Hollywood kid (Nick Robinson) with a substance-abuse problem who keeps escaping from rehab facilities before he (all together now) meets the Right Girl at one of them. Co-written by Reiner’s son, Nick, there are parts of Being Charlie that feel almost uncomfortable as Charlie struggles with an enabling mother and a father who is always away (running for governor of California in the movie, rather than directing movies in real life). It’s in those moments where the movie works, but inevitably, it shies away from them to focus on a love story we’ve seen a million times before. Still: You can see Reiner at least trying to shake himself up a bit here, and that’s welcome.
10. LBJ (2017)
In 2016, Fox Searchlight released Jackie, a nervy, subjective portrait of John F. Kennedy’s assassination told through the eyes of his shattered wife (Natalie Portman). Around the same time, Reiner premiered his own take, which starred Woody Harrelson as Kennedy’s vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who felt underappreciated by his commander-in-chief and then had to live up to his shining example after the man was killed. LBJ didn’t finally hit theaters until almost a year after Jackie’s release, but they’re interesting companion pieces, both depicting how legendary supporting characters in the tale of Camelot reconciled Kennedy’s public persona with their own experiences. Unfortunately, LBJ is a pretty standard modern biopic in that it largely focuses on one specific period — Kennedy’s murder and Johnson’s attempt to ratify his predecessor’s Civil Rights Act — and although Harrelson imbues the 36th president with a lot of piss and vinegar, it’s never a fully compelling portrait. LBJ feels like it was made on the cheap — the period production design and makeup are pretty chintzy — and the movie has the earnestness of an instructional video geared to middle-schoolers. What saves LBJ, somewhat, is its inherently fascinating Lincoln-like investigation into how bills get turned into laws. But you’ll nonetheless wonder how anybody other than Reiner would have attacked this material.
9. The Bucket List (2007)
Proof that even Reiner at his most mawkish can work, though it really does help if you give him two of the most charismatic movie stars of all time. This sappy but effective comedy, about two men (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) diagnosed with lung cancer and crossing off as many activities from their “bucket list” before they die, pioneered the geezer comedy as we know it (if you’ll forgive the bypassing of Grumpy Old Men), for better or mostly worse. The movie has its moments, and again, you can’t go wrong with these two actors, mugging and charming their way throughout. Worth noting: Other than his near-cameo appearance in James L. Brooks’s 2010 comedy flop How Do You Know, this remains Nicholson’s last significant screen performance, 11 years ago now.
8. Stand by Me (1986)
For Stephen King — who wrote The Body, upon which this movie is based — Stand by Me was a personal one, with elements of the story drawn from his childhood. But it was also a labor of love for Reiner, who told Variety in 2016, “It was the first time that I did anything that was closely connected to my own personality. It had some melancholy in it and also had some humor in it. It was more reflective, and I thought, ‘If people don’t like this, they’re not going to like what I like to do.’” After delivering the comedies This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, Reiner seemed to respond to Stand by Me’s emotional nuance and nostalgic tone. Of his first three films, it’s fair to say that this wistful adaptation, about a group of young guys (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell) in search of a corpse, proved truest to Reiner’s own temperament. There are better, wiser films about boyhood. But for kids who grew up in the ’80s, Stand by Me will always reside in a special corner of their heart — fitting, perhaps, for a film that’s so invested in looking fondly on the past.
7. The Sure Thing (1985)
One of the first ’80s sex comedies that showed you could bring some warmth to the proceedings rather than just gross Revenge of the Nerds crudeness, The Sure Thing demonstrated that Reiner’s heart was always going to be in the right place. He’s perfect here in the story of a teen (John Cusack, only 16 when he was cast) who travels to California for his “sure thing” yet ends up falling in love with his travel companion (Daphne Zuniga). It’s a simple, straightforward, heartwarming comedy, but Reiner was still ambitious enough at this point in his career to keep things from getting overly sappy. Cusack is the perfect fit here, too, the ideal actor to carry the Daphne ’80s romantic comedy into its next phase.
6. Misery (1990)
“I was already working on Misery when Harry Met Sally came out and not a day went by when someone didn’t say ‘Keep making those kinds of films,’” Reiner said in early 1990, just a few months before Misery’s release. “And I kept thinking, ‘Geez. What are they going to think when this movie comes out?’” After years of lighter fare, he decided to challenge himself with Misery, a very funny but also very dark Stephen King story about a successful novelist (James Caan) who tries to reinvent himself — and the homicidal fan, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who won’t have it. This was the period where it really did seem like Reiner could do anything, breezily moving from one genre to the next with smooth, audience-friendly efficiency. Misery remains resonant in its depiction of the uneasy relationship between artists and their public, who are always demanding that their needs be served first and foremost. (See: all the modern-day Annies who’ve been liberated thanks to social media.) Bates’s witty, monstrous performance won her an Oscar — the only Academy Award bestowed on a Reiner film.
5. The American President (1995)
The movie that marked the end of Reiner’s golden age as a master of (well-made, well-reviewed) populist pictures, The American President found him reuniting with A Few Good Men screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to deliver an idealistic, grown-up romance about a widowed president (Michael Douglas) courting an impassioned environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening). This is the sort of expert hogwash that Reiner, for a while, did better than anyone: The American President is as much a fantasy about progressive politics as it is about the belief that love can conquer all, but it’s done with such intelligence and relative restraint that you believe in the film’s fantasy. Amid a run of portraying oily, morally suspect individuals, Douglas took time out to play the most charming, hopeful movieland president ever, and he and Bening radiate old-school Hollywood chemistry. As for Sorkin, his savvy, insider-y mixture of personal and political would help inspire his next great achievement, TV’s The West Wing — which promoted this film’s chief of staff, Martin Sheen, to POTUS.
4. A Few Good Men (1992)
Reiner had shown he could do mainstream comedies and even a dark Stephen King adaptation, but this was Reiner in perhaps his rarest role of all: the Hollywood craftsman, the guy who can give you a good old-fashioned yarn with big massive movie stars and a corny but deeply effective courtroom scene to wrap it up. There isn’t much in Aaron Sorkin’s script that rings the slightest bit true — this is a very movie version of the military — but Reiner is smart enough to simply hand the wild, showy moments to Tom Cruise and Demi Moore and (especially) Jack Nicholson and get the hell out of their way. This is total hokum, but what addictive, relentlessly watchable hokum it is.
3. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
During his ’80s and ’90s heyday, Rob Reiner had plenty of hits, but none of them so profoundly impacted the culture as When Harry Met Sally. Other Reiner films have great lines or memorable scenes, but this bittersweet romantic comedy seemed to speak to the eternal, universal insecurities of dating in such a way that many of Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally’s (Meg Ryan) debates still rage on. The film was famously inspired by the friendship of Reiner and late screenwriter Nora Ephron; she interviewed her buddy to hear his stories of romantic woe, incorporating elements of him and her into the two characters. Set in New York and filled with the witty, urbane back-and-forth familiar from dozens of Woody Allen movies, When Harry Met Sally felt like a sophisticated, wised-up love story amid a sea of teen comedies and emerging blockbusters. And it’s also an argument for what a director like Reiner could do so well: There’s no auteur stamp on When Harry Met Sally, but it’s an exceedingly buoyant, smart, funny, romantic movie that seems to know exactly what it’s doing at all times. If that looks easy, notice how hard it is for other filmmakers to pull it off — hell, look at how hard it became for Reiner after a while.
2. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Four pages of outline, almost no dialogue: From such humble origins came Reiner’s glorious directorial debut, a movie born out of improvisation and a general sense that it would be fun to mock a fictitious metal band on its last legs. At this late stage, to explain why The Godfather of mockumentaries is funny is to waste everyone’s time — it didn’t just create a genre but also suggested a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants comedy style that, like it or not, has since overtaken Hollywood — so let’s instead focus on the film’s surprising depth and genuine pathos. If David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) were simply sexist jerks, This Is Spinal Tap would merely be spitefully humorous; it’s because they’re sweetly clueless, improbably entitled, and touchingly vulnerable that they’re grandly tragic figures. And as Marty Di Bergi, the nonplussed documentarian following Tap on their American tour, Reiner is the movie’s marvelous straight man. Next time you watch This Is Spinal Tap, pay close attention to his performance: He never winks or leans into the joke, making all the inspired idiocy around him that much more hilarious.
1. The Princess Bride (1987)
What Reiner does so well here is what he, for some reason, is unable to do in his lesser movies: Maintain a sincere, good-hearted view of the world, ride the edge of sentimentality, and ground it all in an ironic, seen-it-all nudge to the ribs. He’s the cornpone sentimentalist who grew up loving Bob and Ray. When he loses control of this instinct, the results are borderline unwatchable. But when he gets it right, like he did with The Princess Bride, it’s simply perfect. This is a movie about storytelling that both undermines and embraces the whole idea of storytelling, winking at the hokiness of fairy tales while still believing in them — a satire of the Happily Ever After story and also a prime example of the genre. That it happens to have about ten eternally memorable characters — including a truly touching performance from Andre the Giant! — is just one more aspect of its impossibility. Not having this be No. 1? Inconceivable.