Saturday, September 13, 2014

'The Identical,' Shoddiness, and Faith Shaming

Periodically I vent when I write. I truly don't like it, but sometimes inner irritation bursts out like 'Old Faithful's' waters. Prepare yourself for a written geyser.

The faith-based family move The Identical is currently in theaters. It features some well known Hollywood actors, including Ray Loitta and Ashley Judd.  Last night my wife and I were thinking about going to see a movie, and I did a quick search on reviews of The Identical. Rotten Tomatoes critics gave the movie a 5% rating, one of the lowest ever in the history of the movie review service. Interestingly, the audience gave the movie a respectable 76% rating. I thought we might go based upon the audience appraisals.

As I began to read the reviews, I thought something along these lines, "Well, maybe Hollywood just doesn't understand faith-based, family value movies like The Identical."

Then I read that Christianity Today gave The Identical one star out of five.  The review is worth reading. Words like 'lame,' 'surreal,' and 'odd' are sprinkled throughout the review. Again, not having seen the movie, I am not passing judgment, just information. Christianity Today's review gives a synopsis The Identical in four closing paragraphs which are worth quoting:
Weirdest of all, when Ryan  has a rock-bottom moment and goes to a bar and orders a whiskey (thus proving it’s a genuine “rock-bottom moment”), he is confronted and comforted by a dwarf. The little man, played by Danny Woodburn (an actor with dwarfism best known for his Seinfeld role as Kramer’s volatile friend Mickey), actually says to Ryan, “You’re lookin’ for somethin’, aren’t you? Let me give you a hint, Ryan Wade. It ain’t here. But keep lookin’. You’ll find it eventually.”
It’s lame dialogue, yes. But you won’t really care. Because you’ll be dwelling on the fact that there was a specific filmmaking choice to have a dwarf, shorter than the barstool, suddenly appear out of thin air, just to give a pep talk to our hero at the film’s climactic moment. It’s so strange and surreal and startling, it’s as if Rhett Butler had said, “Frankly, my dear, pull my finger.” Or if Darth Vader had told Luke, “I am your father’s chiropractor.” It’s just head-shakingly odd.
 If you really want to see a great movie about twins separated at birth, re-watch Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Or either version of The Parent Trap.In press materials, The Identical describes itself as “a redemptive movie,” “a captivating story about a family restored, and a life discovered,” and “a drama . . . that powerfully explores two questions that constantly tug at our souls: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I here for?’”
But it doesn’t answer the question that’s tugging at mine: When I hit rock bottom, will a kindly, wise, cliché-spouting, hippie dwarf come and save me too?

Surprisingly, I was still inclined to see the movie, even after reading Christianity Today's review. What soured me, and what gave rise to my inner angst was an article I read by an irreverent comedian who took to task the movie's producers. I found myself agreeing with the irreverent comedian.

The producers of The Identical are telling Christians that 'The Identical" is a wonderful faith-based, family movie! They are putting the first 15 minutes of the movie on-line - for free - and declaring:
Mainstream film critics did not care for ‘The Identical,’ while Christian reviewers and audiences loved the movie. We are putting the first fifteen minutes online to let you decide for yourself.
I went to the official website for The Identical. Immediately I was turned off. Like many modern evangelical Christians, the producers of The Identical seem to be under the impression that if you make a movie that doesn't glorify sex or violence, make use of generous profanity, or flaunt nudity, then Christians should love the movie!

Not even close.

Aristotle once said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." C.S. Lewis quoted Aristotle, and then opined, "The devil understands this well. Thus his strategy is to gently nudge us in the wrong direction. He knows that if we truly saw where we were headed, we would immediately turn away. So, he just softly leads us in the wrong direction, knowing that momentum is a difficult thing to change."

Christian filmmaking seems to be headed in the wrong direction. Evangelicals seem to have not yet developed the habit of producing excellent films, settling for shaky dialogue, shoddy acting, and sharing the belief that Christians will be 'shamed' into seeing such Christian movies because we are in a 'culture war.'

That doesn't motivate me. Evangelical Christians above all others should be producing the most stunning artistic expressions of film and music that our world experiences!  Think of Bach and Beethoven. Think of Tolkien and Lewis. Forget the division between 'secular and sacred." If the universe is all God's then the arts are all His and are sacred.

It is the cheesy that denigrates God, and demotivates me to see a movie. Cheesiness is just as cheesy whether it comes wrapped in nudity or fully clothed people; with hellish curses or mind-numbing banal blessings that both take God's name in vain; with gruesome violence or cheesy heavenly visions. I don't wish to see cheesy, even if the package comes wrapped with a faith-based, family bow around it. Even more, I'll never go see a movie where Christian producers shame me into believing I should see it - in spite of its shoddiness - because we are in a 'culture war.'

After reading the attempts by the producers of The Identical to shame Christians into seeing it, I came to the conclusion I have more in common with an irreverent comedian than I do reverent Christians when it comes to watching poorly crafted movies. Give me professionalism. Give me excellence. Don't make an excuse for the absence of either, particularly if you are a follower of Jesus Christ who radiates the glory of God and sustains the universe by the power of His Word.

He deserves better.

And so do we.


Bob Cleveland said...

I agree with the conclusion, and with Christianity's appropriate place showing excellence in all we do.

I am currently on a soapbox about the SBC's accepting, and even honoring, mediocrity. I'll likely be finished this week and will probably blog about it, then.

Stay tuned.....

Brindusa said...

I haven't watched the movie... but I quite agree Christians should excel in whatever they're doing. Those free 15 min. tend to turn me off too...

One of my favorite movies ever about the period of the Depression is Cinderella Man (2005). It's not that I like boxing, I don't, but I do love that movie.

Brindusa said...

What I'd love to see is good quality work, consistent with a Biblical worldview upon the world - whatever the field involved. For instance, I'd love to see a Christian newspaper, not in the sense of a paper that publishes only sermons, Bible commentaries, news about baptisms and such (we have those here) - though there may be a need for such a thing too... but a newspaper that presents and comments on the news, and takes a stand for issues based on a Christian worldview. And so on... in all areas. A Francis-Schaeffer-type of analysis of culture and world events in the light of what the Bible teaches, but not in a very preachy way... I'm not sure I can word it clearly enough, but... I do wish I could see such an approach in all areas. Do you know what I mean?

Wade Burleson said...

Amen, amen, and amen - all three of you.

Brindusa said...

"Amen, amen, and amen - all three of you." Actually, all three of us were only two of us - I posted two comments. :-D

Anonymous said...

I agree that most (possibly all) faith based efforts to provide movie entertainment are woefully inadequate. At one time I tried to focus on faith based novels. I found them so vacuous that I have not read one since the 1980's. Maybe things will improve...but I am not holding out much hope.
Joseph Patrick

Christiane said...

there's a film I'm watching right now that is 'predictable' but there are moments that shine and I find I can't look away and opt for something 'more entertaining' because in its simplicity, the film has a beauty all its own . . . 'nothing special'? I suppose its up to the person who sees it to find something worthwhile and meaningful, as I did...

but if I had read about the plot ahead of time, I would have dismissed the film and missed the magic within,
so I'm glad I am watching it and I will see for myself . . .

it is true that much depends on what a person brings TO a film when they see it, as to how the film affects them . . . same with a poem, or a novel, or my goodness even a verse of sacred Scripture

that film I'm watching is 'The Lost and Found Family' on netflix and I suspect that it is the type of film that would trigger quite a wide range of reactions from any audience

Anonymous said...

I agree one hundred percent. It is so refreshing to see a southern baptist pastor make so much sense. I wish people would realize this latest crop of so called "christian movies" is embarrassing and dishonors Christ. We can challenge worldly views without stooping to these kind of mediocre productions.

Curious Thinker said...

I don't know, having seen the Identical trailer at the movie theater, I'm inclined to want to see as it seemed intriguing enough than judge for myself what kind of "christian movie" it is.

Anonymous said...

I just watched the "first 15 minutes" of "The Identical" and was one of those who thought it was pretty good. My wife and I want to watch the rest of it.

I personally believe that the Christian film productions are improving. They don't have the "hundred million-dollar" budgets of the Hollywood level films but it seems to me that the Christians have continually improved their films over time as they seek to maximize the product using their shoestring budgets.

I believe that Christian contemporary and rock music has improved tremendously over the years by persevering and making adjustments and perhaps the film making will progress in similar fashion. We should indeed expect Christians to do their utmost to create films and/or music at the best possible quality level to God's glory and I suspect that's the goal. At the same time, God can and does work supernaturally through the frailty and limitations of man to accomplish His purpose of impacting lives with these Christian films beyond anything that Academy Award productions could achieve.

"The Jesus" film must be about one of the "cheesiest" productions ever made but it has been used globally to lead millions into The Kingdom. Most preachers are not profound orators but God uses them anyway as they sincerely give Him the best they have to offer. Thankfully, our weakness is blessed as we do our utmost. Go figure.

New BBC Open Forum said...

Not sure I want to sacrifice 15 minutes of my life right now, but I must say Fireproof was one of the cheesiest, most poorly-written and acted movies I've ever seen. I could never understand what all the hype was about.

New BBC Open Forum said...

I didn't really have anything better to do, so I watched it. Was that Elvis in the opening scene?

I just can't... there aren't words.

From what I've seen so far I have to add this and The Grace Card, The Blind Side, and anything by Sherwood Baptist to my list of "things I wasted 90 minutes of my time doing."

Has anyone noticed these "Christian" or "faith-based" (whatever) films are always about boys/men? There's never a female in a lead role. Ever.

New BBC Open Forum said...

It took 90 minutes because I kept having to rewind it to understand what they were saying. It's hard to fake a southern accent.

Jon L. Estes said...

If we walked away and stopped supporting those things out there that are Christian (and cheesy) the economic result will be no one making anything with a Christian message (as cheesy as the acting and dwarfs may be).

Fireproof a good movie message, cheesy acting - yeah.

There previous ones, more cheesy but valuable lessons.

God's not dead - good movie, good acting (for the most part) and great message.

October Baby - good movie, not bad acting, female lead role - awesome message.

It would be great if the church could learn not to be offended at the minutest of things. We are beginning to sound like those from FFRF (at least in waving our vocal banner about what offends us) or worse... Westboro Baptist. A slippery slope we are heading towards.

Is our message to be what we are against or Who we are for? If we choose the latter, I hope we get it the way He gets it.

Some of my worst messages, I have seen God use greatly. Hey, maybe He can do that with a cheesy movie.

Anonymous said...

One the the best films made with a "Christian" message of grace in the mess of life, is The Apostle. It was written and directed by Robert Duval. I still ponder over scenes in that film. The acting is wonderful. The story is compelling. The Apostle is a scoundrel that God loves and God uses. A beautiful film.

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

"The Jesus" film must be about one of the "cheesiest" productions ever made but it has been used globally to lead millions into The Kingdom.

In other words, story has value ONLY when used as a Witnessing Tool for Soul-Winning?

Where I come from, that's called Propaganda (which word comes from the Catholic Church's missionary branch).

Fifty Shades of Grey got made because it was a guaranteed Big Moneymaker. "Souls" are just Christianese currency instead of the dollar, but Big Box Office remains the same.

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

SF Author Simon Morden's essay on the subject:

Sex, Death, and Christian Fiction

And a recap/sequel:

M. Joy said...

Thanks for the review. I saw the previews and couldn't make sense of them. I won't waste my money.

Anonymous said...

Here might be part of the problem. I am at a point in my life where I have a hard time separating an actor in a role from their political activism.
So I'm not inclined to spend my money or time seeing a movie starring pro-abortion, Planned Parenthood fundraiser Ashley Judd.

Larry A. Singleton said...

I went to see "the first 15 minutes" and I don't understand your reservations at all. There wasn't enough there TO make a judgment. I'm a Christian and I'm still on the fence when it comes to abortion. Tough, but there it is. Regarding not seeing this movie based on the first 15 minutes; Definitely a case of judgment prior to investigation. (No matter who happens to be starring in it.)

Larry A. Singleton
Riverside, CA

rixshep said...


I have several comments for you and your other readers that you may find of interest.

First off, to me, if the regular media AND Christianity today put something down, that is as high a recommendation as I can imagine, in my books anyway.

I actually used to know someone who was a writer/reviewer for Christianity today. It was on a forum of Christians concerned about literature and the arts.

Whenever we would talk about how Christianity was a relationship and not a religion, and even talk about our day to relationship with Christ, this person from CT would complain about us talking about a mere metaphor as if it was a real thing! Turned out, this writer considereed themself a Chrsitian, and that meant nothing more than intellectual assent to a set of truths. In other words, they wrote for Christianity Today, and yet had never had a personal experience, a rebirth, regeneration, salvation or whatever you want to call it! I saw nothing to indicate that this person was aware of anyone else working for that magazine having any more "Christianity" than they did.

So I put no stock in them, just as I put no stock in the regular media. I DO know that movies I approved of in a big way, both they and the media gave reviews of them that were very negative.

Secondly, the dwarf? Seriously? For Hollywood to criticize that is utterly hypocritical. I have seen them do exactly the same kind of non-sequiturs many times, without so much as an eyeblink.

Now, about cheesy versus quality, shoddy versus actual art, I am with you 100 percent.

Wade, I was greatly encouraged by what you said about Tolkien, Lewis, etc. I have actually said almost exactly the same thing in every class I have taught for the last couple of decades!

What many do not realize is that the early Christians of this country were of a different caliber than we have today. It was only in the last century and a half that this changed. Back then, they were very involved in all of life and society. They saw God through Christ redeeming not just individual lives, but families, communities and yes, even nations.

When we were just getting started in that sort of Christian involvement was when Europe was beginning to decline in it. Our own decline really got started in the mid 19th century and then hit high gear after WWII.

Prior to that, we had "Great Awakenings" that transformed society, several times.

But, in the early to mid 20th century, we Christians began to retreat from culture, entertainment, art, politics, etc, due to their being "godless" and "unspiritual" pursuits.

In reality, we had subscribed to the secular humanist claim that you had to divide between the secular and the spiritual (but God is Lord over ALL of life, not just the "spiritual" parts).

The result was that we were no longer salt or light in all of these critical and important parts of society and civilization, so they really did become completely godless.

We need to repent and get involved again. Thanks for challenging us to once again own the arts, etc.

Rick Shepherd

rixshep said...

By the way, the links to the Morden essays that Headless Unicorn Guy posted are SPOT ON with my own conclusions about "Christian" literature. I highly recommend going to those links and reading the essays.