Rob Reiner: five essential films

Revisit the astonishing run of films that Rob Reiner made in his early career.

Jasper Sharp
Updated:

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

The son of actor-director-comedian Carl Reiner, Rob was already a familiar face in the US through his appearances in 1970s sitcom All in the Family before he stepped in front of his own camera as his fictional documentary-making alter ego Marty DiBergi to introduce his directorial debut. This groundbreaking mockumentary – or rockumentary, if you will – sees DiBergi following the eponymous band of long-past-their-sell-by-date British rockers on a disastrous American tour, charting the on-stage mishaps, backstage rows and disputes with management that accompany their decline from arena headliners to amusement park sideshow attraction.

This Is Spinal Tap bares all the hallmarks of Reiner’s finest work – a tight road-movie structure, some hilariously memorable set pieces, characters that are never less than charming in their idiocy and endlessly quotable dialogue. What really stands out is an eye for the absurdity and excesses of the early 1980s rock scene that is both affectionate and uncondescending, with all involved playing things just about straight-faced enough to almost sucker one into believing Spinal Tap are the real McCoy. A massively influential film, both on the comic schtick of the likes of Ricky Gervais and the approach of subsequent ‘serious’ rock documentaries such as Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004) and Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008).

Watch it for…

The cosmic foul-up of their set designer for their monumental ‘Stonehenge’ performance.

What the critics say

“It stays so wickedly close to the subject that it is very nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.” Janet Maslin, The New York Times

The Sure Thing (1985)

The Sure Thing (1985)

Reiner’s overlooked early-career gem comes across like a dry run for When Harry Met Sally… (1989). Much of the appeal comes from watching the sparks fly from its fractious pairing of Daphne Zuniga’s virginal square, Alison, and John Cusack’s cynical smartass and wannabe womaniser, Walter. The two are thrust together by a rideshare board and embark on a road trip, chockful of misadventures, from New England to California during their university Christmas break. She’s visiting her bookish fiancé studying at UCLA; he’s on the promise of a ‘sure thing’ with a perma-tanned hottie lined up by his best friend from high school at the same university.

In an age when American teen comedies came to be defined by the success of Porky’s (1982), The Sure Thing triumphs from its winning formula of being sassy yet never bawdy and sentimental while never mawkish.

Watch it for…

Cusack’s impromptu drunken rendition of Nat King Cole’s ‘The Christmas Song’ with the assorted lushes of a roadside bar.

What the critics say

“The Sure Thing is at heart a sweetly old-fashioned look at the last lap of the coming-of-age ordeal in which the sure thing becomes less important than the real thing.” Variety

Stand by Me (1986)

Stand by Me (1986)

Never runaway successes at the box office, Reiner’s earlier films received new leases of life on home video. The comedic fantasy escapade of The Princess Bride (1987) is one notable title that has picked up a sizeable fan following over the decades, but, for my money, more satisfactory is this heartfelt coming-of-age tale based on Stephen King’s 1982 short story ‘The Body’, which is held by the author to be the finest film adaptation of his work.

An affectionate portrait of early adolescence following four young lads as they embark on a two-day trek along a railroad line to catch a glimpse of a dead body reported in the local woods, it showed a gentler and more nuanced side to Reiner. Taking its title from the Ben E. King’s 1961 hit song, the film is positively dripping with a sunny summer nostalgia that to modern viewers still strongly evokes the mid-80s yearning for a former bygone age of innocence. The sense of boisterous boyhood bonhomie is particularly well-served by Reiner’s handling of his young cast, which includes River Phoenix (in the standout role of his all-too-brief career), Corey Feldman and Kiefer Sutherland, in one of his first major appearances, as the local bully Ace.

Watch it for…

The tense scene in which the boys almost meet their demise crossing a railroad bridge.

What the critics say

“It stands, sweet and strong, ribald, outrageous and funny, like its heroes themselves – a bit gamy around the edges, perhaps, but pure and fine clear through. It’s one of those treasures absolutely not to be missed.” Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The title that launched a glut of Meg Ryan romcoms across the following decade, this superficially Woody Allen-esque will-they-won’t-they tale of a friendship that is severely tested by latent sexual chemistry still holds up incredibly well. This is largely due to Nora Ephron’s sparky and sharply observed script, based on Reiner’s own experiences of post-divorce singledom, and Billy Crystal’s scene-stealing turn as the sardonic, wisecracking Harry. Not that Ryan, as the finicky Sally, fails to provide him with a strong foil, while Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby lend impressive support as the couple’s best friends, who find mutual solace in the harsh world of New York’s ruthless dating scene.

There’s a wonderful sense of period detail across the 12 years in which the ups and downs of Harry and Sally’s story unfold, and a welcome whiff of old-school Hollywood romances such as Pillow Talk (1959) in the masterfully staged split-screen bed scene that follows the turning point of their relationship.

Watch it for…

Need we even mention Ryan’s legendary fake orgasm in the middle of Katz’s Deli?

What the critics say

“This is a film where everything works: Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s just-this-side-of-smug central couple, the gorgeous photography of New York through the changing seasons, even Harry Connick Jr’s jazz-lite soundtrack. And it’s all rooted in that flawless script.” Tom Huddlestone, Time Out

Misery (1990)

Misery (1990)

Reiner’s second King adaptation seems an odd departure in a number of respects. Not only is it his only foray into horror, but the two-hander set-up of the plot, in which a writer is rescued from the wreckage of a near fatal car accident and kept imprisoned by his number one fan, seems to offer little room to manoeuvre for a director at his best with ensemble casts and narratives that are characterised by almost constant motion from location to location. The dominant focus on James Caan’s novelist, locked in a single room facing an empty page and literally writing for his life, makes for a claustrophobic experience, but the white-knuckle cat-and-mouse scenes as he works towards his escape reveal Reiner to be as accomplished a director of action as he is of actors. Nevertheless, it is the Oscar-winning performance of Kathy Bates as the author’s most demanding reader that steals the show.

Misery was Reiner’s second film scripted by William Goldman, who had adapted The Princess Bride from his own novel. Reiner’s next film, the courtroom drama A Few Good Men (1992), starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore, marked a turning point in the director’s career when it nominated for four Academy Awards, but unfortunately it presaged the dramatic fall from grace of his next film, North (1994), which critic Roger Ebert famously panned as “one of the worst movies ever made.” However, as Ebert continued, “it is not by a bad filmmaker, and must represent some sort of lapse from which Reiner will recover – possibly sooner than I will.”

Alas, Reiner’s work has yet to truly regain its early confidence and freshness, nor the same levels of critical and commercial success. His first six films represent as impressive a run of classics as any filmmaker could dream of.

Watch it for…

Kathy Bates’ demented performance.

What the critics say

“This obviously could have been routine thriller material, but it is enlivened by a wonderful performance by Kathy Bates as the crazed fan who alternates between compassion and violent kookiness.” Gene Siskel, The Chicago Tribune

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