Christmas weekend brought three films with characters who become new people—a Fed Ex manager becomes an isolated islander in Cast Away, a wealthy businessman becomes a suburban father in The Family Man, and a tomboy FBI agent becomes a beauty-pageant contestant in Miss Congeniality. Christian critics mostly approved of the transformations, but questioned the manner in which they were achieved.
Christian reviewers were divided on the spiritual conclusions in Cast Away, which finds harried Federal Express manager Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) stranded on a desert island where his only goal becomes survival—which involves not just food and water but hope. "A very important message is revealed in the film," says Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright. "No matter how futile our existence may seem, life has the remarkable ability of suddenly bringing design to light, giving us not just hope, but purpose." Boatwright also praises the film for it's "commanding photography, a compassionate script and an inspiring performance by the film's star. And with only one profanity and two obscenities, it prefers to tell its story without bombarding us with objectionable content." The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it a "finely crafted drama," and says that "with Hanks' superb performance at its center, director Robert Zemeckis movingly probes what matters most when someone is stripped of his everyday life and possessions." Preview also lauds Hanks, who "turns in another strong performance in this largely one-man show," and found it reassuring that "Chuck draws spiritual strength from a package painted with angel wings."
However, other critics believed that Chuck's spiritual survival was more humanistic in nature. Jim Mhoon, a contributing analyst to Focus on the Family, says "the story suggests that Chuck's near death and isolated struggle leads him to an epiphany of what is truly important. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't reveal what those important things are." Where Robinson Crusoe "turned to a Bible and found God in the midst of nothingness ... Chuck Noland befriends a volleyball." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com wonders if the corporate work ethic isn't lifted up as Chuck's savior. "The FedEx mystique of 'absolutely positively' getting the job done is an unspoken, but observable, element to the film. The mindset and habits Chuck developed in his role as a Fed Ex employee become his tools to survival." Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com says, "I would have expected [director Robert] Zemeckis to take us through sort of a spiritual journey of a man who washes on shore and has no hope of ever escaping other than a miracle. ... Even if his character doesn't believe in God, then let's see him get angry, rationalize, cry out, grow with a deeper insight about himself and what his life was." Screenwriter William Boyles Jr. says in an interview at Beliefnet that "We wanted this thing to be a message of hope, ultimately. That you don't live by coconuts alone." But Movieguide didn't find much hope in the film, saying it has "an existential fatalistic" tone.
The Family Man is riff on It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol formula; ruthless businessman Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) is shown what his life would have been like had he married his college sweetheart and settled in the suburbs. "This movie embraces and elevates marriage, family and true love, placing everything of importance in perspective," raves Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com. "This is one of those movies that has hilarious, touching, poignant moments ... all are woven into a story full of humanity and hope." Movieguide agrees: "Very well written, it makes you laugh and cry. Better yet, it's an intentionally moral movie. It wants to prove that everyone needs love, marriage, children, and that these things are much more important than fame or fortune." However, other Christian critics found a few chinks in the armor. Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright calls the film "the season's best holiday treat," but laments that it's "dominated by a humanistic view [that's] bent on separating God from entertainment. ... The film's angel seems more a representative of Rod Serling than the Lord Jehovah." Focus on the Family's Bob Smithouser says, "This could've been a wonderful family film if not for profanity, sexual situations, alcohol use and fairly explicit nudity." Peter T. Chattaway, a freelance Christian reviewer, writes at Beliefnet that "movies about the evils of greed should always be taken with a grain of salt, not least when they are produced by major studios owned by multinational corporations." He adds that the movie is too unrealistic to be taking seriously: "The audience is given the impression that Married Jack has led a basically blissful life, while Single Jack is a smug, hollow fellow who desperately needs a spiritual tune-up. Married Jack, in other words, feels too good to be true." The U.S. Catholic Conference flat-out didn't like it, calling the film a "flawed romantic comedy ... with its routine plot, obvious jokes and cliched characters." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com acknowledges that "director Brett Ratner lets the schmaltz run a bit thickly at times, but as this is a holiday story about love and second chances, he can be forgiven. Overall, it is a warm and funny romantic comedy, which leaves the audience glowing in appreciation."
Miss Congeniality is a lightweight comedy about an unkempt FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) who must transform into a beauty queen in order to catch a pageant-haunting terrorist. Christian critics didn't find much substance here, so most disagreements came over how funny it was. Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com says it's great for anyone "looking for a funny, lighthearted comedy with a touch of romance," and admires Bullock for being "one of the few actresses who can reel off deprecating remarks about herself and get away with it. She's confident in this role because she gets to be the clown and the beauty, but the clown's still underneath." Preview agrees that it's a "hilarious, slapstick comedy," and Crosswalk.com's Michael Elliott says Bullock is able to transcend the weak script: "Bullock's slapstick performance is game enough to keep us from totally dismissing the film as pure nonsense. She's simply fun to watch, even in a film as slight as this one." Other Christian critics felt the story was too much of a millstone. "The script is clunky and obvious," writes Bob Smithouser of Focus on the Family. "For one thing, the 'mad bomber' whodunit creates no real mystery or tension. We know how it will end because we've seen it all before. ... The characters are as thin as the plot." The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it a "dull-witted comedy [with] pedestrian writing and strained humor," and Movie Reporter Phil Boatwright says "it's not original, suspenseful, or even all that funny. The best that can be said for this 110-minute film is that it is diverting." Movieguide chides it for treating its subject too lightly: "Things brought to the surface, such as one character's abrasive treatment of another and Gracie's personal struggles, are never explored. Even though the movie is a comedy, these defects seem to keep things on a level that is more silly than funny."
Christian critics held no such ambivalence about Quills, a fictionalized drama about the last days of sexual provocateur Marquis De Sade (Geoffrey Rush). Movieguide says the films seems "to side with De Sade's blasphemous attacks on God and Jesus Christ in the story. ... Quills slanders the reputation of the real-life clergyman who always treated the Marquis with Christian kindness, despite his rebellion against Christianity. The movie also favors complete artistic freedom and contends that one must know the horrors of vice in order to know the wonders of virtue." Preview also doubts its treatment of the artistic spirit: "Designed to show the complex issues of censorship and the potential corrupting influence of art, the film becomes a witness for rather than against censorship." The U.S. Catholic Conference says the film "repulses the sensibilities with explicit images ... including a menage a trois, intermittent violence, [and] base sexual dialogue." ChildCare Action Project's Thomas A. Carder says he "was morally and ethically offended [by the] sexual immorality, perverse speech and vile imagery," and wrestled with whether to spend "precious slivers of my life" completing his reporting on the film.
In Finding Forrester, a high-school jock (newcomer Rob Brown) with a hidden talent for writing befriends reclusive Pulitzer-Prize winner William Forrester (Sean Connery). Movieguide says it's "a sometimes dramatic, sometimes hilarious movie that takes the audience to an uplifting end without being sickeningly sweet." The review also calls it a "gem of a movie" with "lessons on friendship, honor and trust." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com agrees, saying it's "a wonderful film about an unusual friendship. Two strong performances and an intelligent script make for an enjoyable and inspiring movie." Elliott praises Connery for allowing "us to see the frailties, weaknesses and insecurities of a man who purposely withdrew from the world and its criticisms," and Brown for "a quiet, subtle strength of character and will." He also admires "how difficult it is to effectively convey [a love of the written word] without it becoming boring or pompous. Finding Forrester is neither. It succeeds magnificently." Preview is also complimentary, saying it "features superb, Oscar-worthy acting and an inspiring story," but does note that "unnecessary vulgar language detracts significantly" from the film.
Steve Lansingh is editor of TheFilmForum.com, an Internet magazine devoted to Christian conversation about the movies.
See earlier Film Forum postings for these movies in the box-office top ten:What Women Want, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Emperor's New Groove,Dude, Where's My Car?, Vertical Limit, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
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