Quite simply, and across the board, The Wager is not a good film. But as a "Christian" film, with its low budget and artistic limitations, it at least gives a good try, even if it does ultimately fail to rise above the all-too-familiar ghetto of "faith-based" cinema.
Let's start with one of the better things about The Wager—its distribution plan. Outreach Cinema is distributing the film directly to churches, beginning December 31. Outreach provides a "turnkey feature film experience" for churches, allowing a congregation to purchase a $299 package that includes a licensed copy of the DVD, a variety of promotional materials, and a three-month license to screen the film an unlimited number of times. The package also includes 15 extra DVD copies of the film which can be sold at the church's discretion for profit; if the church sells all 15 at $20 each, they can recoup the $299 cost. For a company that focuses on faith-based movies that are "safe" for a family audience, such a do-it-yourself strategy that taps the target market in churches makes pretty good sense.
It's a shame, then, that the latest film to use this approach is such a disappointment. It doesn't help that the main conceit of the film is that country music superstar Randy Travis plays an actor (named Michael Steele) who is up for Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards. Seriously? It is taken for granted from the outset that Steele is on par with a Clint Eastwood or Tom Hanks, but the film never comes close to convincing us that he is, or ever was, a good actor. It's a classic example of trying to make something so by telling us, even while the film at large is showing us something completely contrary—i.e., that Steele, or Travis-as-Steele, can't act. (A better premise might have been to have Travis play a popular singer up for a Grammy instead of an Oscar—after all, that's proven territory for him.)
The storyline of the film, based on a book by Bill Myers, is equally forced and far-fetched. As the Oscar ceremony approaches and Steele gears up for his inevitable acceptance speech, he finds himself (surprise!) in a crisis of faith. Steele is a Christian with the world at his fingertips—a successful acting career, a beautiful wife, a nice house, etc. But it all begins to fall apart, Book-of-Job style.
Suddenly Steele begins to face discrimination on the set of his current movie; his conservative faith has apparently never before conflicted with his acting career. The director (Bronson Pinchot, aka Balki of Perfect Strangers!), a short-tempered secularist, wants Steele to be in a steamy love scene with the female star, Cassandra (Candace Cameron Bure, aka DJ of Full House!). But Steele refuses to compromise his values in this way, and is thus kicked off the set.
Meanwhile, Steele's personal life is imploding, exacerbating his sudden PR disaster. His wife announces that she wants a divorce, his costar (Cameron Bure) tries to seduce him, and he is caught up in a pedophilia scandal (don't ask). As his whole world falls apart, it becomes clear to Steele that he is being tested for a reason. Satan (who may or may not be embodied as a limo driver) has inexplicably proposed a wager with Steele that he will not be able to "live the Sermon on the Mount" in today's world. So as Steele's life spins out of control in what might have been the hour of his greatest triumph, he must reckon with issues of pride, humility, and whether he is capable of being meek, poor in spirit, and a peacemaker.