Friday, September 3, 2010

Kevin Sorbo and Kristy Swanson in Dallas Jenkins' Christianity-themed WHAT IF...

What if Hercules found Jesus?  What if an angel, disguised as a tow-truck driver, showed him how his life should have turned out?  What if his career as a fast-track investment wizard paled beside the chance to be the preacher at a little white church?  What if a Christian sermon in the shape of a two-hour movie presented itself for your viewing pleasure?  Would you bite -- while hoping to high heaven that the movie itself did not?

WHAT IF..., no surprise, is the title of the film in question, and to be honest, it's not Hercules who finds Jesus, but rather another character played by actor Kevin Sorbo, the very ship-shape fellow whose career took off when he starred in the popular television series as that Greek hero of antiquity. That was fifteen years ago. In the meantime the man has learned to act -- and do it pretty well -- if this film, directed by actor/producer/director Dallas Jenkins (shown at right) is any indication. Sorbo, shown below, plays Ben Walker, a man who walked out on his girlfriend years before and, due to religious circumstances beyond his control, is suddenly thrust into the life he might have led, had he not done that "walking."

Films these days seems to be arriving to TrustMovies in themed pairs: two surfing movies in the same number of weeks, and now two Christian films over the same time period: last week's The Least Among You and this one -- which is by far the more slickly produced: soft rock music, nearly "name" actors, and a real feel for the kind of sentimental, feel-good goo that mainly-TV-watching, mainstream Americans might enjoy. And all of it bundled neatly into a package clearly labeled Christianity's the only answer.

If you're already familiar with this blog, you're no doubt wondering why an agnostic reprobate like me would even bother with a film that wears its religion on its sleeve (and on its shoes, pants and undergarments). Well, I received a request to take a look at this movie, so I did. And now my comments will address both the film as film and as proselytizing.  As to the former, think of What If as a kind of Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed-lite: It's a Pretty Good Life -- pleasant, competently acted, written and directed, all-in-all quite professionally put together. And awfully predictable.

If religion were not almost always front and center, we might better be able to overlook the movie's proselytizing. But from the moment, early on, that the angel (played by John Ratzenberger, above, as a chummy, no-nonsense kind of guy as ready with his fist as with his mouth) corners our hero, forcing him to play along with everything because it's all god's doing, the film begins pounding away.  The already-converted will likely love it; others may roll their eyes.

The movie is full of signs and signals: The fish insignia on the car; how often the Bible is quoted; the heavy-handed, pre-marriage counseling session; the near-total white breaded-ness and single faith of the populace of the town where everything good happens to our hero -- whose younger daughter (one of those wise-beyond-her-years mini-adults) comes out with a prayer that is nearly barf-inducing in its sanctimoniousness.  And yet, "Everything in life boils down to this," we are told. Sorry: everything in life does not boil to anything this simple-minded.  It would, of course, if we gave it our "total surrender," as the angel explains is necessary -- and which all fundamentalist religions demand of their followers, whether they be the Christians in this film, right-wing zealots in Israel who want to destroy Palestinians, or the Muslim men who flew into the World Trade Center towers.  As usual, when you're right, you're right. No questions, no comments, no deviations.

Through all of this Mr Sorbo is very good. He's aging well, still looks real and possesses the kind of speed and intelligence that is able to quickly register depth and complicated thought processes (as in the moment in which he realizes that his older daughter is a "negotiator" and consequently a chip off the old block) in ways that I don't recall him doing earlier in his career. Kristy Swanson (above and below) is fine, too, as the woman he left behind, though she is called upon to do little but be the good Christian wife who stands by her man -- once she has helped corral him back to the wonders of his former religion.

What If, from PureFlix, began its theatrical run a couple of weeks ago in select theaters around the country and will continue playing in many cities nationwide the country during this end-of-summer/into-the-fall season. Click here to find cities, dates and theaters.  Look for a DVD release in early 2011.


McNair Wilson said...

Too easy to lump Christianity in with Islamic terrorism if you don't have to (and didn't here) give any examples.

I liked that "What If..." showed that just because you are a Christian and a pastor to boot, does not mean life is easy sailing. Not a bit. He still had to work at his marriage, his role as a dad and his own faith.

Glad you got to see this. Sorry you saw it through dark glasses and so many narrow preconceptions.

James van Maanen, said...

Gee, I thought I gave the PERFECT example, McNair: the angel telling our hero that total surrender is what is called for. That "total surrender" is what joins fundamentalist faiths, whether they be Christian, Muslin or Jewish, and ends up creating the kind of proselytizing that results in The Crusades, 9/11 and much of what is going on in Israel today.

Have you seen AGORA yet? Put that one on your must-see list.

As to dark glasses and narrow preconceptions, I think we all have these and need to fight against them -- especially me. Keeping an open mind is difficult enough these days without having the veil of any total-surrender religion thrust over us to fog rationality.

And yes, the character played by Sorbo had to work at his marriage but mostly because of the fantasy plot -- which tossed him into that marriage out of the blue. And (spoiler ahead, if you haven't seen the film) did you notice that he saves the family's finances by making use of "insider" information he learned about that company from his very irreligious days as a non-believer. Hmmmm... Pretty iffy, if you ask me.

Andrea Aicher said...

I don't think referring to the Crusades as an example is at all valid. There are plenty of faithful Christians who would not support a repeat of those dark days. I agree with McNair that you watched the film through dark glasses. You took the phrase "total surrender " and gave it the worst possible interpretation you could, equating it to overzealous fanticism inevitably resulting in mass murder. You could have compared "total surrender " to being content with a simple, minimalist lifestyle and gracious acceptance of events in life beyond your control (ideas which are taught in Buddhism), and having faith that despite your earthly trials something better awaits you. I myself am an agnostic. I don't believe, though I've tried. I don't think ridiculing those who have faith, or trying to make that faith seem nefarious by giving examples that are hundreds of years old is very intelligent or enlightened. Cynicism and cleverness don't equate wisdom.

James van Maanen said...

Are you saying the using examples from history is not valid? Sorry, but history is pretty much all we have, whether or not it is recent or past. By the way, Andrea and McNair (who commented earlier): I was raised as a Christian but left the faith when I found it -- my branch of it, at least --far too constraining and unwilling to grow and change.

Regarding "total surrender," Andrea: Do you understand what those two words mean, and how, when used together they mean exactly that. Not a simple, minimalist lifestyle, or gracious acceptance of events beyond our control, as you put it. YOUR words sound lovely. But, honey, they ain't total surrender. So let's not play games here.

I didn't mean to ridicule, but I certainly disagree with some of what I saw pictured in this movie. And thank you at least for calling my writing clever.

As for giving examples that are hundred of years old: I did mention in the comments above both 9/11 and what is going on in Israel today. But those, since thy are not "Christian" are not worth including, I guess...? I could have also used those fundamentalist Christians who appear at the funerals of gay men and women shrieking about the dead going to hell, or those who countenance killing abortion providers.

There are countless examples of Christians today who are not in any way following the teachings of Christ Jesus. Just look around you, and if you are not seeing these, well: open your eyes.

This does not mean that there are not plenty of fine, upstanding Christians among us. But I am only dealing with what I saw going on in the movie under consideration here, where the ideas and behavior are, well, a little iffy.

Andrea Aicher said...

I agree that there are still people who act reprehensibly in the name of their religion. The Bible is dated and can be vague, which leaves a lot of it open to interpretation (thus the many different denominations). But if we're going to make generalizations, then they should be based on more recent historical facts and represent the majority of that group. Otherwise you're judging the whole by the actions of a few. Then again, I understand your piece was editorial, so objectivity isn't required. Thanks for replying, though.

James van Maanen said...

It's not Christianity per se that I am coming out against here; it's fundamentalism of any and all stripes -- to which I think this movie comes a little too close. As with that "total surrender" bit. So the generalizations are directed in that direction. And your point about objectivity is interesting. What kind of "objectivity," pray tell, can someone have who has completely given over to religion via this total surrender of the mind, heart and all else? Anyway, Andrea, I do thank you for taking the time to comment -- and making me think a little more about all of this.

Andrea Aicher said...

My comment on objectivity was in reference to your article. You declared yourself an agnostic, and your skepticism is clear throughout. I only meant that this is your personal blog, and since you're entitled to your own opinion, you can think/write/say whatever you wish. Though I may not agree with everything you say, I do appreciate your ability to employ critical thinking and debate in a polite and respectful manner.

James van Maanen said...

Ah... Now I better understand what you mean. And I also appreciate YOUR ability to employ critical thinking and debate in a polite and respectful manner. The world needs more of this, but it often looks like we're headed in the opposite direction.