On this blog, I have regularly commented about art and faith — more specificially, calling for people of faith to do a great job when creating art, since I think it's too easy for believers to be lazy about their craft. Think about it — if you can claim "I'm doing this for the glory of God," then maybe that trumps any discussion of the value of your work. If your art is "God's work," who has the right to question your ability?
I mention this because I've been hearing from Christians that I need to go see the movie "Fireproof" — a Christian film that has received fairly wide play in theaters. Several Christian writers encouraged me to go, since the film has a strong message and is directed at a good cause. I'll admit I didn't do any preparation for the movie, but instead just showed up so I could take it in and see what the fuss is all about. It turns out it's another one of those films that was written and produced by Christians who have convinced themselves that they're at the top of their game because they have a strong "message." We used to refer to these as "church basement films," since the Billy Graham Association would produce them, then they'd be shown in church basements everywhere, giving believers a chance to nod in agreement with the message and thereby making us feel like we've accomplished something great.
Since there is a big "faith and film" conference going on right now, I'd like to offer some thoughts on "Fireproof" from an artistic viewpoint…
1. Kirk Cameron can't act. Come on…they cast Kirk as the tough captain of a Firehouse? He's a soft metrosexual type. What next — he's going to cast himself as an NBA center? The guy is completely unbelievable in the shout/be-angry/get-in-the-men's-faces portions of the film. In addition, he always LOOKS like he's acting. The fight scenes with his wife seem fake. The "place your hands over your face so it will look like you're emotionally struggling" business simply looks like he couldn't figure out what to do in the deeper portions of the movie. Good grief — why don't we admit the guy wasn't that good 20 years ago on TV's "Growing Pains," so we don't need to fool ourselves into thinking he's suddenly a talent because he's a good guy who loves his wife and is open about his faith? Kirk Cameron IS a good guy, but his acting in this film isn't good enough to star in a movie. And the fact that Christians like him shouldn't blind them to that. (And, let's face it, his acting in the "Left Behind" movies was downright horrible. Egad.)
2. The rest of the cast is awful. The firemen working under Captain Kirk's command are right out of high school acting class. The mom has all the emotional range of a piece of wood. The dad is the guy who used to pastor your church. The doctor has a nice smile, but only two looks — coy and furtive. Kirk's wife, played by Erin Bethea, is sweet but flat and simply looks like she's in over her head. The one group of people in this film who can actually act are the nurses, who seem to be just extras filling roles.
3. The script is amateurish. Okay, I realize the goal of this movie is commendable, and that commitment to marriage is a good thing, but reflect on the script for minute… The firemen provide comic relief that has nothing to do with the story. The scenes with the next-door neighbor are cute, but get predictable. In fact, the entire film is predictable, since any of us could have foretold what was going to unfold with the story ("he'll become a Christian and win her back"). The film hints at issues in the relationship (finances? internet porn?) without ever exploring them. The religion is so heavy-handed it's like watching a tract. There's no subtlety to the story — it's a couple fights, she flirts with an affair, then he finds religion and all is well. Name one other bit of conflict in the movie. The whole thing comes across as a 70's TV show, with simple sets and a straightforward story that gets resolved in 90 minutes. From a story perspective, it has all the texture of a genre romance novel, only without the strong sense of place. At no point did I ever get lost in the story, and forget I was sitting in a movie theater. (In fact, I was 15 minutes into this when I turned to my wife and said, "I can't believe we spent $13 for a film that we'll be able to rent for 99 cents in a couple weeks.")
4. There were some good parts. The music and cinematography were very professional. The car caught on the railroad tracks and the child inside the burning house actually created some tension — but let's face it, neither of those stories had anything to do with the major plotline of the film, nor did either help move the film along. The ending of the movie was touching. While Kirk can't act, he cries well, and that was affecting. The last 30 minutes were much better than the first 45.
5. The message overcomes the art. Here's something True Believers sometimes miss: When you've got a good message ("marriage is good"), the goodness of that message doesn't validate the art. The fact that a couple are fighting and make decisions to turn around their relationship is a fine basis for a movie, but this one doesn't explore that in any deeper way. And the fact that Christians made it, and didn't stumble over themselves while doing so, does not automatically redeem the movie. (I point that out because the "Left Behind" movies were awful — the last one was such a dog it shed hair on my DVD player.) I think "a lack of badness" doesn't translate into "genuine goodness." The fact is, I found the spiritual message to be heavy-handed and dull, relying on Christianese so that this really becomes a film Christians can go to and feel good about themselves, rather than a film that might actually persuade someone outside the faith.
Now let me tell you what's going to happen: I'm about to be swamped with messages from True Believers, exclaiming how the film moved them, and saved their marriage, and their best friends went and it saved their marriage as well. Maybe. But anecdotal stories don't create truth. (I can introduce you to people who said their lives changed when they joined a cult, or danced with the Hare Krishna, or when they became atheists, so one person's testimony doesn't necessarily validate a principle.) As I said, there's some actual emotion generated at the end of the film. But this movie lacks substance and subtlety. It lacks texture and finesse. It lacks decent acting and writing. It doesn't suck you in or transport you to another place. And while it offers a fine overall message, that doesn't make up for the fact that the film is not that great. So please don't write to tell me how Billy-Bob's life was spared when he entered the theater, and that he gave up drinking and got baptized and re-committed his life to Christ before entering the priesthood. If you must respond, just tell me what worked or didn't work about the film.