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.
If it sounds like a contrived sermon-illustration setup, that's because it more or less is. Most everything in The Wager is ostensibly an excuse to set up some overt discussion about the Sermon on the Mount or some other spiritual issue. The film is unfortunately plagued by the Christian movie curse that wastes no time on nuance or overlong character moments that don't contribute directly to the "message" of the film. As such, there are scant few true moments to be found amid the barrage of slow-mo flashbacks, emotionless musical montages, and moonlit soliloquy prayers full of on-the-nose emoting and don't-buy-it-for-a-second existential torment. One particular scene I held hope for—in which Travis strums his guitar and sings in solitude—quickly devolved into a mess of overediting and hyperstylization. But this is a systemic problem of The Wager and movies like it: the imposition of unnecessary and cheap-looking style at the expense of authentic character substance and realism.
Where The Wager does have something of substance to offer is its portrayal of the destructive personal cost of our contemporary media culture. Though the paparazzi is a bit caricatured in the film (the lead paparazzi villain, played by Doug Jones, is especially overdone), the way that they are obsessed with celebrity exploitation and directed personal attacks does ring true (e.g., Britney Spears). Steele's PR disintegration is expedited and, in fact, mostly constructed by the celebrity media hounds that crowd the gates with mics and cameras, hoping to catch him in a weak or exposed moment. In the way that they feed upon and foster the self-destruction of others, the insidious paparazzi are in this film a suitable metaphor for the way the Devil works in our everyday lives.
The film might have better succeeded with a more limited focus on the personal costs of voracious media and celeb-obsessed culture. But as it is, The Wager is an over-extended hodgepodge of tired clichés and stylistic miscues. At one point in the film, Pinchot's character screams at Steele, "I'm not gonna allow your narrow-minded religious agenda to ruin my film!"
And I wonder to what extent writer/director Judson Pearce Morgan might resonate with that sentiment. The Wager is a film that might otherwise have been interesting, but because its top priority is sermonizing and reductive "safe" storytelling, it fails to make any significant impact.Discussion starters
- How is the Sermon on the Mount demonstrated in the film? Does Michael Steele succeed in his quest to find out how he might live it out in the 21st century?
- Beyond the subject matter or plot, how is this film "Christian" in the way that it is told?
- What do you think the overall message of the film is or was meant to be? Is it effectively conveyed?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Wager does not have an MPAA rating, but is safe for the whole family. It presents moral values in a positive light and has nothing objectionable in content. Some young children might not get the pedophilia suggestion or the hint at possible infidelity, but they can still appreciate the costly side effects of sin and temptation.
Photos © Copyright Outreach Cinema/PureFlix Entertainment
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