How did it go so wrong? There’s an old Dilbert strip where Dogbert is doing a seance and says he is going to talk to Jackie Mason. When Dilbert points out that Jackie Mason is still alive, Dogbert replies “Then I’ll be talking to his career.” I feel this way about Rob Reiner.
Reiner is on my initial list of Great Directors, the handwritten list in my old Powell’s notebook that began my five year project. And at the time, it looked like he still belonged there. But sadly, after watching The Bucket List last night, he’s finally been eliminated.
Of all the directors I have gone through for this project, some 150, only one other matched the quality of Reiner’s first five films. Only Tarantino (and only because Kill Bill ended up as two separate films) could match what he put together from 84 to 89. Not Bergman. Not Lean. Not Kurosawa. Not Welles. No one else had such an amazing run at the start of their career. Out of a scale of 100 (a **** system easily breaks down to 100 – four star films are 88 and higher, ***.5 are 76 to 88 and so forth), Reiner’s first five films average a 93 and his first seven a 90 (still the highest for anybody up to that point in their career). His second seven, however, starting with North and concluding with Bucket List average a 42. Out of the 5000+ films I have seen, he is the only director to direct four films of *.5 and lower, the true mark of a dreadful film. Even Michael Bay has only one three films that bad.
Look at the start of Reiner’s career. He debuted as a director with This is Spinal Tap, one of the funniest films ever made (ironically, the only other director to debut with a film this funny was Mel Brooks, who also fell off rather badly after his first several films). He followed it up with The Sure Thing, a great teen comedy. His third film was Stand By Me, one of the alltime great coming of age movies. And to follow that up, he made The Princess Bride, the most quotable movie ever made and one of my absolute favorites. And he only followed that up with When Harry Met Sally. It really doesn’t get any better than that to start a career.
His next two films were Misery and A Few Good Men, both very good. Then, he fell off the face of the earth.
North, his follow up to A Few Good Men was so bad that when he was roasted at the Friar’s Club, Richard Belzer simply made him stand at the podium and read Roger Ebert’s review of the film (the review that spawned the title of his book I Hated Hated Hated This Movie). Ebert concluded his review by hoping it was a lapse that Reiner would recover from. Well, his next film was The American President, which was an okay film. Unfortunately, it was by far the pinnacle of the second half of his directing career. After that came Ghosts of Mississippi, a well meaning but not particularly good film. But after that he made The Story of Us, a truly awful film that was supposed to be touching, I assume, but was just terrible. It looked terrible in the trailer. It was worse than it looked.
Then he made Alex and Emma, which was just as bad. It’s hard to understand, since he had already made one of the great alltime romantic comedies with When Harry Met Sally. How could he make a romantic comedy that was so bad (for that matter, he had made a great coming of age movie with Stand By Me, so how could he have made North)? The list was written before Alex and Emma came out, and when I saw it, it almost knocked him off the list. I kept him on for the same reason that Ebert had faith — he had made great movies before. And Rumor Has It was a good enough film not to knock him off (not great, but okay, enjoyable). But holy crap, The Bucket List is bad. It’s preachy, it’s annoying, it’s sentimental, it’s just utter crap with a ridiculous pathetic ending.
I’m not quite sure what will happen with the list now. My goal was to make a top 100 Directors of alltime. But Reiner’s not the only one to have ended up falling off the list (Barry Levinson and Robert Zemeckis have both been eliminated as well), I pushed anyone off who has not yet made five feature films (19 of them, including Sofia Coppola, Alejandro Amenabar, Baz Luhrmann and Julie Taymor) and David Cronenberg, the reverse Reiner, can’t seem to make it on the list because his first five films were so bad, the rest of his career hasn’t been able to overcome it (plus he made Crash, one of my most hated films ever). I guess, right now, my goal is just to finish the Kurosawa films so I can be done with my original list. But, what the hell. It’s only taken me five years.