Ed Driscoll

How To Succeed In Movies Without Really Trying

There’s a curious flip-over that occurs in any celebrity’s career when he or she comes out as a member of the left. On the one hand, the fullblown brass ring of Schwarzenegger/Bruce Willis/Mel Gibson-level megastardom becomes much more difficult to obtain, because you’ve given audiences in red state middle America a great reason to avoid your movies. On the other, your career is set: you’ll never not each lunch in this town again, to mangle the title of the late Julia Phillips’ famous tell-all.

Take for example, Rob Reiner, whom Hugh Hewitt has been hammering all week. (Click here and just keep scrolling.)

Just in time for Christmas, his latest film, Rumor Has It was released, starring Jennifer Aniston of Friends fame. Two months later, it’s grossed a paltry $42m in domestic box office.

Hey, everybody’s entitled to strike out now and then, especially with a public as fickle as ours. But if you look at the box office returns of Reiner’s movies on IMDB.com for literally the last decade, the last time he directed a film that grossed higher than its budget in the US was the leftwing-lovefest The American President in 1995, and even then, just barely. (About three million over its $62m budget, according to the IMDB. George Lucas and James Cameron don’t even get out of bed unless they know their films are going to gross a few hundred million dollars.) And yet somehow, a studio manages to assign Reiner a film to direct every couple of years.

Wonder why? Tim Cavanaugh explains, in his 2002 article for Reason:

From merely being another Hollywood player, he has now become a quasi-governmental official – Chairman of the California Children and Families Commission – with a leadership role in disbursing $700 million in annual tobacco tax revenues. This is just the latest feather in the cap of the successful director, producer, actor and intellectual beacon (to Hillary Clinton during her village-taking days). It’s common to marvel at how far Reiner has risen above early typecasting as Mike “Meathead” Stivic, the sanctimonious mooch responsible for so many of Archie Bunker’s most painful hours on the TV classic All In the Family. (You can track Reiner’s rising profile by how his relationship to Prop 10 is described in the press; while early reports called him the “driving force” or “inspiration” behind the measure, the Chronicle now designates him the law’s “author.”)

On closer inspection, though, it’s not always easy to see the difference between the freeloader who lectured Archie on women’s lib and overpopulation while helping himself to the Bunker groceries (a practice that no doubt contributed to the Hollywood triple threat’s relentless supersizing), and the tiresome busybody who can’t stop haranguing us with obscure data points like the fact that smoking is bad for you and that children should be fed and changed on a regular basis.

More alarmingly, the fully grown Reiner has access to a fridge far more capacious than Archie’s, and his motivations have grown, if anything, more narrowly personal. In describing his motivations for Prop 10, the Meathead consistently describes how his adherence to the first-three-years cult came out of therapy after the breakup of his first marriage. “It’s no great revelation that my early experiences as a child informed my relationship to others,” the son of funnyman Carl Reiner confides to Horizon magazine.

It’s quite a leap, however, to extrapolate from a tough Hollywood childhood to a wholesale belief in the early-years theory, “enriched” learning environments, a half-decade window of mental “hardwiring,” and the efficacy of pumping Mozart into the uterus. The early-years assumption has taken some knocks in recent years, most notably the publication of John T. Bruer’s The Myth of the First Three Years, which argues that cognitive development occurs throughout life, and that much of the effort spent on French for tots could more profitably be spent addressing the more basic needs of kids. Rather than addressing the Bruer argument, early-years proponents have typically shifted emphasis, cautioning readers against “taking to heart [the book’s] negative messages” and redoubling calls for Early Head Start and other dubious attempts to pump babies up. Since everybody agrees infants and toddlers need attention, why ask what type of attention?

That close-enough-for-rock-n-roll attitude informs Prop 10’s other plank – reducing smoking through excise taxes. California, whose per-capita cigarette consumption is the second lowest in the nation, was a poor test case for this method, as well as a poor source of tobacco-based revenue. Prop 10 funds are parceled among California’s 58 counties according to birthrate. Los Angeles County’s ambitious program is a direct result of its population’s fertility; other counties, according to the Chronicle are having a harder time getting such efforts off the ground in the face of declining tobacco revenues.

Reiner is the poster-child for what so many in Hollywood yearn to achieve: not just politicizing entertainment, but using entertainment as a stepping stone to actual political power.

That the product that got him there fails to make a profit these days is as irrelevant as whether or not his social programs work in California. Reiner has no clout at the box office, but plenty in studio boardrooms: he’s guaranteed to direct Hollywood films with tens of millions of dollars in budgets as long as he wants.

Update: Rob’s fan comes out swinging in his defense.