Rob Reiner's 'Flipped': A return to the glory days of 'Stand by Me'
It's no secret that Hollywood is obsessed with '80's nostalgia. After all, we've already seen the decade reenacted in "Hot Tub Time Machine" and re-envisioned through remakes of "The A Team" and "The Karate Kid," with the prospect of a big-screen version of "21 Jump Street" and a new sequel to "Ghostbusters" still to come.
If there were any filmmaker who was at the top of his game in the '80s, it's Rob Reiner, who made his audacious directing debut with "This Is Spinal Tap," which was followed by such '80s classics as "Stand by Me," "The Princess Bride" and "When Harry Met Sally." But the 1990s (at least after 1995's "An American President") and the 2000s didn't exactly burnish Reiner's filmmaking reputation. In fact, it's been a long time since Reiner directed a must-see film. So when a colleague recommended that I see Reiner's new film, "Flipped," due out Aug. 6 from Warner Bros. Pictures, I dawdled, delayed and dithered before finally heading out to a screening.
Much to my surprise, the film (adapted by Reiner and Andrew Scheinman from a popular young adult novel written by Wendelin Van Draanen) represents a real comeback for Reiner, who, working with a stellar cast of character actors including Aidan Quinn, John Mahoney, Anthony Edwards and Penelope Ann Miller, has told the story of an unlikely romance between two mismatched 1950s-era middle-schoolers.
The heroine of the movie is young Juli Baker, played by Madeline Carroll. Part of a family of nonconformists (her father loves to paint and never mows his lawn), Juli raises chickens and loves to sit in the top of the neighborhood sycamore tree, soaking up the view. She also has an unrequited crush on handsome Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe), who lives across the street. But everything changes when Juli begins to wonder if Bryce is just another narcissistic dolt while Bryce, who has always tried to stay as far away from Juli as possible, slowly comes to realize that there is much more to the girl next-door than meets the eye.
For me, the most fascinating thing about "Flipped" is that, even though its protagonists are awkward 8th graders, it's a film that adults will respond to as much as kids. In fact, in an era when Hollywood couples films are either played for laughs ("Date Night") or for thrills ("Knight and Day"), the two young middle-schoolers have a relationship that is probably more sophisticated and emotionally complex than any romantic relationship we've seen in a major studio film all year.
As it turns out, Reiner discovered the story when his son, then a student at the Wildwood School, brought the book home and asked his dad if they could read it together. "As I'm reading it, I started going, 'Oh my god, I love this story as much as my son does,' " Reiner recalled when we had lunch recently. "My son said, 'Dad, I think this could be a good movie.' And he was right."
So what did Reiner do when he discovered that no one in Hollywood wanted to make the movie?
It wasn't easy putting the project together. The rights to the book were owned by Kelly Gonda, one of the producers of the Broadway show "Grey Gardens." She already had a draft of a script by Nora Ephron and was hoping to get Kenny Ortega to direct the project. But things didn't work out and when Gonda decided to leave the movie business, Reiner jumped in and acquired the rights. The book takes place in the present day, but Reiner decided to set the picture in the 1950s.
"I wanted the story to feel timeless and pure, in a time before texting and Facebook," he told me. "I thought it was important to strip away the technology so we could get at the true emotions and feelings and make it as innocent as possible. I guess you could say I wanted to make it closer to my own childhood."
Warner Bros. is hoping that it can expand the film's audiences past young moviegoers, especially since the movie has played especially well with older audiences. As Warners marketing chief Sue Kroll put it: "Younger people like it, but older audiences really love it. It just strikes an emotional chord with them. It reminds them of their first kiss, their first crush, their first heartbreak. That's pretty powerful stuff, if we can tap into that part of people's psyches."
The story certainly brought back memories for Reiner. "When I was 12, our family moved from New Rochelle to Los Angeles, and I remember everything about the first girl I had a crush on," he recalls with something of a faraway look in his eyes. "I gave her my bracelet. She was cute, tomboyish, a good athlete. The first time I tried to kiss her in the alley behind our house, she took out her hairbrush and hit me over the head."
He waits patiently for his lunch companion to finish laughing. "That''s how I knew I was in love. I was willing to endure pain," he says, adding wistfully, "I still drive by her house on Hillcrest Drive every once in a while, just to take a look."
Even though "Flipped" is being marketed for its entertainment value, its portrayal of a free-thinking young girl who stands up for what she believes in, even in the depths of the conformist 1950s, is clearly a theme close to Reiner's heart. He's an old-fashioned Hollywood liberal, so much so that when I ask him if there's any issue about which he holds views that might surprise his liberal friends, he's stumped. "I'm against capital punishment, I believe in gun control and a woman's right to choose, and I think that as a society, we should always be concerned with lifting all our boats. So I guess I'm a 100% liberal."
Reiner is also a key supporter of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization that hired two top attorneys, Theodore Olson and David Boies, to lead the fight to overturn Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage. He's also been especially active in children's issues through the years, having led the campaign to pass Proposition 10, the California Children and Families Initiative, which created an ambitious program of early childhood development services.
So for Reiner, "Flipped" isn't just an unusual love story, but a film about values. "You know, I've made essentially the same romantic film over and over, from 'The Sure Thing' to 'When Harry Met Sally' to this one," he says. "In my view, women are more emotionally mature than men, so this is really about a boy who has to learn the value of emotions as well as how to become a friend to a woman. The boy's family has the nicer house and a lot more money, but when it comes to values, what Juli and her family have is so much stronger."
It's a simple enough message, but Reiner hopes that it will resonate with moviegoers. He has no illusions about the movie being a huge breakout hit. As it is, he shopped the project around to every studio, getting rejections everywhere he went. He finally took it to Warners, whose studio chief, Alan Horn, is a close friend. Reiner's previous three films were all made at Warners, including the comedy "Rumor Has It," which Reiner took over just weeks before shooting began after the studio had fired the original director, Ted Griffin.
"I did it as a favor to Alan," he says. "I basically had eight days to prep the picture. It was like walking into a guy's garage and seeing if you could use the skills you'd learned learned over the years to basically clean up the mess." Reiner acknowledges that Horn's willingness to make "Flipped," once Reiner got the budget down to a rock-bottom $14 million, was essentially a favor as well. "Luckily the movie's story is something that Alan really responds to," says Reiner. "He would never shove a movie down his colleague's throats. But it was clear that we couldn't get this set up anywhere else."
At 63, Reiner doesn't sound like a man who desperately needs success anymore. He's been a household name for decades, first as the costar of "All in the Family," then as a prominent filmmaker and political activist. He's still noticed everywhere he goes -- after lunch, he stops to sign an autograph and pose for pictures for a couple visiting from out of town. But he realizes that the movie business has changed, though he's not especially eager to change with it.
"It's a very different business than when I started out," he says. "Now you have the big tent-pole movies and the indie films and not much in between. The studios don't want the kind of character-driven pictures I like to make. In today's world, "A Few Good Men" or "An American President," those kind of $45-million pictures, I couldn't get those made today."
So when Reiner wants to make a film, he looks for something that he loves. He's given up worrying about what the critics think. "The bad reviews don't hurt that much," he says. "Early on, when I was in 'All in the Family,' a guy came up to me on the street and was raving about it, saying it was his favorite show of all time, along with 'The Beverly Hillbillies.' "
Reiner laughs. "Well, obviously I didn't think 'The Beverly Hillbillies' was in Arthur Miller territory. So I learned a valuable lesson. You can't give that much weight to what other people think. All you can do is love what you're doing. That's good enough for me."
Photo: Rob Reiner at the 2005 premiere of "Rumor Has It." Credit: Danny Moloshok / Associated Press