LOS ANGELES — “Have you been doing a lot of working out?” Rob Reiner is asked during round-table interviews for “Alex & Emma,” his new romantic comedy. “You’re unrecognizable, almost.”
The subject, familiar for decades as both the authentic son of comedian Carl Reiner and the fictional son-in-law of Archie Bunker in “All in the Family,” the pre-eminent sitcom of the 1970s, does look remarkably fit these days. Taking the observation as a compliment, he replies, “I’ve lost almost 50 pounds,” prompting scattered gasps from the press gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel on a balmy Sunday morning.
“I’ve been on this Zone Diet. It’s a modified Atkins. There’s a little too much fat in the Atkins Diet. Basically, you eliminate the starchy carbohydrates: bread, pasta, potatoes, rice. Things like that. You eat fruits, vegetables and protein. That’s it. You gotta exercise and stay on the diet. Every diet will work if you do that. Talk to me in a year, and I’ll tell you if it’s a success. I’ve been at this weight for the last four or five months. It took me about eight months to lose the 50 pounds.”
One of the reporters remarks that a 2004 update may be difficult to arrange. Mr. Reiner, whose film directing career began almost 20 years ago with “This Is Spinal Tap,” seems to have become less active behind the camera. His last feature, the marital comedy-drama “The Story of Us,” was released in 1999. It came three years after “Ghosts of Mississippi,” a dramatization of the belated murder trial of the killer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Mr. Reiner acknowledges that he has been making fewer movies in recent years. “That’s because of my political work,” he explains. “Four years ago I passed a ballot initiative here in California. Proposition 10. It generates about $650 million a year for early childhood care and education. I was asked by Gov. [Gray] Davis to chair the commission that oversees the implementation of the program. That’s what I’ve been doing for most of the last four years. We’ve got programs up and running all over the state. It’s tremendously absorbing and satisfying.”
Mr. Reiner’s proprietary interest in the program he now supervises emerged in 1997, when he and his second wife, Michelle Singer, started a foundation called I Am Your Child. Voters approved what was called the “California Children and Families Initiative” in the 1998 election. Skeptics have pointed out that the state was already funding numerous programs for childhood development and early education before the Reiner initiative was approved.
Mr. Reiner insists that he was glad to get back in the filmmaking harness, although there’s a hint that it might have lost a certain gravity in his estimation. “It’s not unlike the transition period when I started directing movies,” he says. “People would ask, ‘What do you like better, acting or directing’? The answer was directing, because you’re involved with the whole movie. Now I’m inclined to look at directing as sheer fun, because I look at public policy in the way I used to look at directing. It’s a bigger responsibility.”
This confession and the flattering results of the Zone Diet reinforce idle speculation that Mr. Reiner, 56, is planning a run for state office sooner or later. A richly entertaining governor’s showdown in Hollywood terms would pit Mr. Reiner as the Democratic Party candidate against Arnold Schwarzenegger for the Republicans. All premature, according to Mr. Reiner.
“My decision to run will have nothing to do with what Arnold does,” he remarks.
“So you do intend to run?” a reporter asks.
“No, no, I don’t know,” Mr. Reiner replies. “That’s something way off in the future. I never say no to anything, but I haven’t made a decision about that. A lot depends on thinking very hard about how a political campaign might affect my family.” The Reiners have three children, ages 12, 9 and 5.
In the immediate future Mr. Reiner does plan to direct another film, tentatively called “Imagine.” It’s an inspirational yarn that has been gestating for about 30 years, an account of an astronaut who returns from a space mission with such an exalted, idealistic sense of things that he endeavors to improve “all his relationships, but particularly with his family.”
The attraction of “Alex & Emma,” according to the director, was that “it explores how people create.” Specifically, the plot revolves around a desperate novelist, played by Luke Wilson, who hires a stenographer, Kate Hudson, in hopes of meeting a 30-day deadline to complete his next book, which actually needs to be composed from scratch. The movie interweaves scenes of their emerging romance with tentative episodes from the book-in-progress.
The pretext rang a life-like bell for Mr. Reiner, who detected echoes of his own situation at the time he was directing the popular romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally” in 1989. “I’ve always tried to have a personal link with every film I’ve done,” he says. “Even a courtroom drama like ‘A Few Good Men.’ The personal element there is that the Tom Cruise character needs to escape the shadow of a famous father. In ‘Alex & Emma’ the fictional episodes the writer makes up reflect back on his real life. That’s what happened to me during ‘[When] Harry Met Sally.’ It was about everything I’d been going through. I’d been single for 10 years, after Penny Marshall and I divorced. I was making a mess of my dating life. It got to the point where I said, ‘I’ll make a movie about this mess.’ But while I was doing that, and not really believing in the idea of a happy ending, I met Michelle, the woman who became my wife. We’ve been married for 14 years now. By examining my relationships with women, something desirable started to happen. Engaging the problem informed the way I was behaving and changed my life in ways I couldn’t foresee.”