Compared with politics, comedy’s easy

Times Staff Writer

Director Rob Reiner’s reviews have never been worse.

His latest movie -- “Rumor Has It” -- was panned by the critics the world over. It’s “Reiner’s slow slide toward oblivion,” opined an Associated Press movie critic. Bermuda’s Royal Gazette: “Rumor has it you should avoid this flick.” And Taiwan’s Taipei Times: “The movie was directed between naps.”

But Reiner is learning the hard way that facing down his critics in Hollywood is nothing compared to those in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. “Hollywood? It’s like child’s play,” he said. “This is much, much worse.”

Considered by many to be the dean of the Hollywood political establishment, Reiner was -- until recently -- relishing his bully pulpit as chair of First 5 California Children and Families Commission, a panel put in place to oversee the expenditure of millions in tax funds earmarked for childhood development, health and education programs. (Those funds were the result of a 50-cents-a-pack cigarette tax passed by California voters in 1998, in large part because of Reiner’s influential backing.)


That was before the First 5 commission spent $23 million on television ads promoting preschool just as Reiner was launching a new initiative -- Prop. 82 on the June ballot -- to tax the wealthy by $2.4 billion a year to pay for preschool. Although Reiner insists he did nothing wrong, he stepped down last month from the First 5 commission while an investigation is launched into whether state funds were improperly used to boost the initiative’s chances.

And if you think movie reviewers are ornery, meet the political press corps. News reporters and opinion writers alike have had plenty to say about the alleged conflict of interest as well as Reiner’s plan to tax the rich to pay for preschool.

A Wall Street Journal editorial: “Meathead Economics.”

A Sacramento Bee column: “Reiner latest in long list of those who misused public funds?”

And a Marysville Appeal-Democrat editorial: “Time for Reiner to go back to school.”

Even blogs have taken notice. An “al92It1" on the Huffington Post wrote: “I will never understand what makes you Hollywood types think you are so politically astute. Stick to acting or comedy or whatever you do.”

And if that’s not enough, Reiner was recently lampooned on Comedy Central’s “South Park.” They called him fat.

After lying low for several weeks, Reiner said he’s now bruising for a fight. First up? He’s agreed to meet with the press club in Sacramento today. “They’re going to have a field day with me,” he said. “And I couldn’t be more than ready.”

Chorus of criticism

Settling into a large leather club chair Friday in his Beverly Hills office, Reiner, 59, downplayed the chorus of criticism being leveled against him.

“Honestly, they can say anything they want about me,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me ... it’s just name calling and lies.” He dismissed the film critics -- “They never like any of my movies” -- as well as the political writers. “What are they going to do? Take my kids away? No.”

And criticism of his preschool ballot initiative?

Now that’s another matter.

Reiner worries, tremendously, that the controversy surrounding him will set back his goal to offer free preschool for all California schoolchildren. It’s an issue he’s been working on for more than a decade, long after he shed his role as “Meathead” on TV’s “All In the Family” and went on to make what has become the gold standard in romantic comedies -- “When Harry Met Sally ...” -- and other acclaimed movies, including “The Princess Bride” and “This Is Spinal Tap.”

Today, the father of two sons, 14 and 12, and a daughter, 7, says, improving life for schoolchildren has surpassed even directing as his first love.

“What I feel sad about is that we could be denying children a preschool education,” Reiner said.

“But I have to believe at the end of the day, people will see through that. My gut feeling tells me we’re going to win this thing. The alternative is not acceptable for a million reasons.”

He goes into one of his rapid-fire rants. His voice is booming. He throws his arms into the air.

“They can’t debate the issue so they are trying to tear me down.”

His voice is now ricocheting off the high ceilings of his office.

“We are living in a political climate. We’ve seen it in the last number of years. Look at what they did to [President] Clinton. It’s the politics of human destruction. They want this to be a distraction because they don’t have any other way to oppose it. At some point, I hope people will start talking about the real issue. If they want to knock me down, fine. I’ll take the hits as long as I reach my goal.”

He’s not acting

The tough-guy demeanor isn’t just an act, said Norman Lear, a longtime friend of the Reiner family.

“I’ve known Rob since he was 8,” said Lear, who once lived next door to the Reiners on Fire Island in New York, and is a close friend of Reiner’s father, Carl. “We spent a couple of summers within 30 feet of each other.... Now, Rob is one of the few people in town who really knows the ins and outs of the issues he talks about. He makes it his business to know. I marvel at that.”

Reiner doesn’t appear to be scared off by the public pummeling, said Mike Feldman, once a top advisor to former Vice President Al Gore, who has also watched Reiner in action for years.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who would just say, ‘Who needs this ... ?’ and go back to making movies,” the Washington, D.C.-based communications consultant said. “But my guess is that he is not going to be easily brushed aside. There is just too much at stake.”

But veteran political consultant Rick Taylor said he believes Reiner is naive, and in over his head. “I think Mr. Reiner is figuring out that politics is not a nice business. I respect what he does, but I think he’s been misguided.”

And if he decides to stay in politics -- Reiner has said he would consider running for public office someday, maybe even for governor -- the controversy over the alleged misuse of tax funds “will certainly be used against him,” Taylor said. “Maybe he would make a better candidate now because he has had this learning experience. But he will be more vulnerable.”

Some days, especially lately, Reiner’s wife, Michelle, wonders if it’s all worth it.

“They take jabs at him that are very personal ... it bothers me,” she said. “We’ve spent millions of our own money and countless hours on this. So when I hear people saying he misused political funds, or that he’s fat ... I get angry.... It’s like ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ ”

There’s no doubt that Reiner is at a crossroads. Will he remain in politics when and if this all blows over? Or will he concentrate only on filmmaking?

“I’m not prepared to say at this point that I don’t ever want to direct another movie again,” Reiner said. “I’m certainly not prepared to say I don’t want to see these issues through that I’ve taken on.

“It’s a balancing act and I’ll tell you, at some point something has got to give. But I’m not at that point yet. I’m not giving up.”