This week saw two new films with Christian characters (one fictional, in Space Cowboys, and one real, in The Eyes of Tammy Faye), and two movies with scientists whose God complexes lead them to embrace their dark sides (the horror film Hollow Man and the comedy Nutty Professor II), giving Christian critics some highly charged topics to debate.

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Updating the well-worn Invisible Man tales, Hollow Man gives cocky scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) the power of invisibility, which sends him spiraling into a moral abyss as he discovers what he can get away with. The majority of Christian reviewers, such as Preview's Paul Bicking, slammed Hollow Man for having "no morals [and] no ethics." Others pointed out that the movie wouldn't be a morality tale if the disturbed central character was ethical. "The film title may be more a reference to his nature than to his invisibility," notices Doug Philips, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight. "A major test of a person's inner makeup is: What would you do if no one could see you do it? [Obviously] Caine is not a good role model." Still, most agreed that the film does very little with the intriguing premise. "The plot would have been far more interesting if Sebastian wasn't locked up in the lab for most of the movie," explains Hollywood Jesus' Annette Wierstra, "and his loss of morality was more closely examined. Sebastian could have been more of an Everyman." The Dove Foundation, too, thought Caine wasn't normal enough before his transformation for audiences to step into his shoes. "Caine is not only snobbish and unapproachable, he is a deviant who spies on unsuspecting women, bullies his co-workers and presumes to be the scientific community's newest god. There's no dimension to the role. He's a jerk who goes insane." Childcare Action, however, disagreed about Caine's shades of darkness. "The character was transformed very smoothly from a light character of arrogant disregard for the rules to a dark and evil character." The review also took a forgiving tone with the movie's much-discussed transformation scenes, where the body disappears or reappears one layer at a time: "Those of us who find gore repulsive would indeed be offended by Hollow Man, but those of us who look for fine details in imagery would not be disappointed as the ape was brought back to visibility, organ by organ, vessel by vessel, bone by bone, almost hair by hair." The Dove Foundation would fall in the former category, saying that "for those still not completely desensitized by moviedom's excessive savagery, it will be a stomach-turner." Reviewers also took shots at the weak script, which "trad[es] suspense for explosions and other obvious gimmicks" ( U.S. Catholic Conference), and is filled with "ridiculous and hackneyed dialogue, matched with motivations and illogical actions usually found only in spoofs of the genre" ('s Michael Elliott).

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Nutty Professor II: The Klumps tells another sort of mad scientist tale. In the original, the obese Dr. Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy) invented a formula that turned him skinny, but also gave him a mean-spirited alter ego, Buddy Love (Murphy again). Now, Klump tries to get rid of Love for good, but accidentally provides Love a body of his own to wreak havoc with. "One hopes for awhile that Sherman's struggle to rid himself of his evil side will provide a huge life lesson for teens," writes Steven Isaac of Focus on the Family. "Alas, it is not to be. Sherman discovers that to be 'whole' he must embrace his dark side rather than sever it."'s Holly McClure says the film was a lost cause anyway, since "the plot is weak, the dialogue never goes beyond third-grade level and the abundance of fat and flatulent jokes ruin it for anyone who's not into that kind of humor." World magazine agrees that it's "tasteless," and The Phantom Tollbooth's J. Robert Parks laments, "it's a sad commentary when the biggest laughs arise from a enormous hamster having sex with a man."

Space Cowboys tells of four would've-been astronauts (who lost out to a monkey in the early days of the space program) finally getting their shot at space when repairs on a '50s-era satellite require their knowledge of old-time technology. But the real treat for Christian critics was just seeing acting legends Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner perform together. "While the narrative's plausibility is questionable," says the U.S. Catholic Conference, "director Eastwood's casually paced film maintains interest with colorful characters."'s Holly McClure elaborates: "The ease at which these four veterans interplay with each other and the funny one-liners they each come up with command the screen and prove they have the right stuff." The film is not without thematic strength, either. Michael Elliott of says the film suggests that "there is much to be learned from a life long lived. Younger generations would do well to give ear to their elders, seeking both their wisdom and counsel." John Evans of Preview liked how "the crew's determination to accomplish their mission, even if it costs them their lives, is an inspiring theme." Focus on the Family's Lindy Beam, however, found the notion of elderly men willing to sacrifice their lives too similar to euthanasia. "If moviegoers stop to think about it at all, it could lead to either of two conclusions: a) people with great physical weaknesses or disabilities can still be heroes, or b) it's okay [if they die], because [their] life was already fading anyway." Christian critics also disagreed about James Garner's character, a Baptist preacher named Tank Sullivan. The Dove Foundation complains that it's a "completely uninformed portrayal. We see him attempt to give a sermon, but he seems as out of place behind a church pulpit as Woody Allen. … Even more stupefying is his prayer later in the film. During a tense moment we hear him pray, 'Hail Mary, Mother of God.' From a Baptist minister?" Mark Parent writes in a letter to Christian Spotlight that Tank "is portrayed as a buffoon who cannot even find his way around the Bible and trivializes dependence upon God." But other letters at the site say "the handling of the issue was stupid, rather than offensive" (Mike Mitchell), and that "his spiritual ignorance is included more for defining the character than to slam Christianity" (Jim and Susan Fernald). Christian Spotlight guest reviewer Hillari Hunter liked how Tank was "not portrayed as a stereotypical man of God. The script shows Tank's faith in a subtle way without beating the audience over the head with it."

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Presumably made for the male teen who's too young to get into bars or gentlemen's clubs, Coyote Ugly depicts life in a wild bar where women are not only waitresses but dancers, shimmying for a bigger tip. "Scantily clad women dancing, dousing themselves with water [at every] opportunity is what this movie's about," sums up John Adair of Preview. "This movie is yet another example of women not only being looked upon as objects, but supposedly empowered by presenting themselves as such." Michael Elliott of thought the film might depict the shallowness or compromises of such an exploitative job, but was mistaken. "Far be it for Hollywood to cast a negative moral judgment upon licentious and libidinous behavior. In the world of Coyote Ugly, flat stomachs and bare midriffs are the keys to success, alcohol flows freely but never makes one drunk, and it is perfectly okay for women to exploit themselves for financial gain."

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What's New

More than a decade after Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's ministry was destroyed by his affair, her painkiller addiction, and their TV network's illegal fund raising, a documentary called The Eyes of Tammy Faye shows how the famously mascara-drenched woman has pieced her life back together. Two Christian reviews disagree, however, on the sincerity of her new life. Preview's John Adair sees her as a great Christian role model: "A heartfelt look at a woman often scorned these past ten years, The Eyes of Tammy Faye reflects a surviving spirit. … Several themes arise in the film, most prominent being Tammy's sweet servant's heart. She is presented as interested in ministering to all people, no matter what stigma surrounds them." But the Dove Foundation's Phil Boatwright is more skeptical. When he met her in the early '80s, he "always appreciated her one-on-one sincerity," but in the film "you are seeing the Tammy Faye she wants seen. By film's end you are still not sure if this woman is contrite. When a person tears up … constantly in a planned-out documentary, you begin to wonder if it isn't merely showmanship. … Never does she or Jim acknowledge any wrongdoing on their part." Mainstream reviews (which were nearly all positive) noted both Tammy Faye's servanthood and her showmanship, concluding that this seeming contradiction is what makes her a fascinating subject. Jay Carr of the Boston Globe says "she's persuasive in her self-salesmanship and image rehabbing because she obviously isn't putting on an act, but has internalized her litany of suffering and forbearance and tells her story with real conviction. You can't not admire her tenacity and spirit, even as you note her convenient myopia on several issues."

What's Noteworthy

Hollywood Jesus, which is "dedicated to the amazing current interest in spirituality" in pop culture, stated in its most recent newsletter that "in the midst of this great cultural spiritual curiosity you would expect the churches to be benefiting. But they are not. Leonard Sweet, in his book Soul Tsunami, says God is hot everywhere, except in the church." Site editor David Bruce went on to say that while MGM Studios has named an upcoming movie Original Sin, his recent drive past local churches didn't turn up "any church sign that mentioned Jesus, spirituality, miracles, new birth, hell, heaven, or any other spiritual thing. One church I drove by was called 'The Family Life Center' and their sign announced a message titled: 'How to Make Your Marriage Work.' … I tend [to] think that too many churches have replaced Jesus with a sort of pop psychology that is couched in a family-centered (not Christ-centered) perspective." Bruce's charge brought back a wide range of feedback, offering congratulations, rebuttals, proposed solutions, and explanations of the phenomenon. Many who disagreed with him felt that Americans turn to the movies only because they are passive experiences. Kath Wells says "movies are entertainment, and church is about a life commitment, life change. It is far easier to look at a movie about spiritual things than actually encounter God in church." Pastor Harold Bender fears that movie spirituality is too vague to be helpful: "Movies allow people to make God out to be whatever they want him to be; they do not (or very rarely) give an accurate picture of the God of Holy Scripture." But one respondent described how his church incorporates movies in order to have both the excitement and biblical teaching. Gordon Stromberg says, "Our church uses film in a series of 4 or 8 classes. The students attend the theater or see the video at home, then a carefully planned discussion with handouts occurs after the viewing. … It is more powerful than a newsletter or a phone call." Other writers defended their church's focus on marriage and family "because that's what people are asking about," according to pastor Brian Rudesill. "Yes, they want to know about spiritual things, but they also want to know what God has to say about how to build their marriages, how to strengthen their relationships, how to find meaning in their work. The Bible specifically addresses these issues." Some argue, however, that a focus on principles for living masks the gospel message. "In Jesus' time," says the Rev. Wesley Channell, "The Pharisees were promoting principles for religious living and the Sadducees were working out principles for successful living. Then Jesus comes along and spoils it all by talking about relationships with both God and man. I think the great interest in spiritual things at the movies is indicative of the great famine of intimacy." Peter Wall writes that "films give us drama, mystery, and paradox, but the church … has put itself in a position to have a stranglehold on everything its members think and believe. Most Christians today have no idea of what it's like to have a true spiritual experience of our own because we're not allowed." Responses continue to be posted, so Bruce recommends bookmarking the page and checking back periodically.

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Steve Lansingh is editor, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.

See earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: What Lies Beneath, X-Men, Scary Movie, The Perfect Storm, The Kid, and The Patriot.