Do You Believe? (dir. Jonathan M. Gunn)

Posted: March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

From the writer’s and studio of “God’s Not Dead”, this reviewer’s pick for the worst film of 2014, comes “Do You Believe?”, a film that is half really boring and half unintentionally humorous.  The film follows 12 some odd people in Chicago and how their lives intersect as they grapple with issues of faith.  That’s right, this is the Christian cinema version of the 2004 Oscar-winning film “Crash”, except that “Crash” focused on racism and not on faith.  Considering that “Crash”, 11 years later, is considered one of the worst films to ever win Best Picture and is usually looked upon with derision for how preachy it is, perhaps it wasn’t the best film to model your Christian version on.  There is an entire subgenre of films about multiple people stories that converge together. Robert Altman practically invented the damn thing, and Paul Thomas Anderson made a great film in this genre called “Magnolia” that itself dealt with religious issues, to the extent that the film ends with frogs raining from the sky.  Well, whatever the reasoning was, we’re left with a film that, much like an anthology, has mixed quality throughout.  Some stories are merely boring and feel like filler, others are ridiculous and didactic to the extreme, and at least one is morally and intellectually reprehensible.  The best thing I can say about this film is that it is both better made from a nuts and bolts standpoint and not nearly as offensive as “God’s Not Dead”, but this is still a very, very bad film.

Laying out who the characters are and what the basic plots are is probably in order. I believe bullet points will suffice:

  • Matthew (Ted McGinley) is the pastor of a small church and narrates the beginning and end of the film. His plot involves finding the healthiest and least-dirty-looking homeless pregnant woman ever to exist (Madison Pettis) and, when Matthew’s wife (Tracy Melchoir) refuses to let her stay in their home, Matthew puts her up in a hotel with a bag of food from Tim Horton’s and tells her he’ll check on her in a few days.  We later learn her mother tried to trick her into an abortion by taking her to an abortion clinic and telling her it was an OB/GYN check-up.  Yeah, because a doctor would play along with that and the patient wouldn’t have to be told anything or have to sign any forms, right?  As we all know, all abortion doctors are just chomping at the bit to perform as many abortions as possible, regardless of the mother’s wishes.
  • D (Lee Majors) and Teri (Cybill Shepard) are an older couple whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. J.D. wants Teri to put away all of their dead daughter’s belongings, and Teri lashes out at him, asking where god was when their daughter died. J.D.’s response is that he was hoping the drunk driver wouldn’t get behind the wheel and urging the bartender not to pour the guy another drink.  Apparently god doesn’t have the power to actually do anything, but merely suggest things? Perhaps whisper in your ear and hope for the best? I don’t know, but this film does a pretty poor job of answering rudimentary challenges to god’s existence in the why-do-bad-things-happen vein.
  • Lacey (Alexa PanVega, who is a long way from “The Devil’s Carnival” and “Repo” with this role) is a girl who is suicidal, seemingly because her daddy won’t visit her. Yeah, I don’t know. She tries to eat a bunch of seafood even though she’s allergic and later goes to a bridge to jump off, only to meet Carlos (Joseph Soria) a guilt-ridden ex-marine with PTSD who happens to be at the bridge trying to kill himself at the same time. They later go for coffee.  This is the most boring and least Jesusy storyline in the film.
  • Samantha (Mira Sorvino, who is a long way from her Oscar-winning role as a prostitute in “Mighty Aphrodite”) is a homeless widow with a daughter, Lily (Makenzie Moss), who may be the most annoying child character I have ever seen in a film. They often spend nights at a shelter, but some nights there is no room and they sleep in her orange car.  One day they are in the ER and while Samantha tries to convince doctors to see Lily, Lily starts talking to a hulking man who compliments her drawings, Joe (Brian Bosworth).  Faster than you can say stranger-danger, Lily sidles up to the man, named Joe, and while Samantha is at first concerned that a lone man is so keen to chat up her little girl, she softens when the man gives up his place in line to be see at the ER to the Lily.  After that, he offers to let the two stay in his place, while he sleeps on a park bench.  Since Joe also works at the pastor’s church and has keys, one wonders why he didn’t think sleeping in the church would be okay. I’m sure the pastor wouldn’t have minded, but then we as an audience couldn’t be moved by how selfless the guy is. Shame he’s dying of cancer. I’m sure the audience watching the film will be moved to let homeless people live in their homes, and they’ll also take in every poor pregnant woman they meet to boot, in keeping with the example this film sets.
  • Pretty Boy (Shwayze) is a gang member whose brother, Kriminal (Senyo Amoaku) hatches a scheme to rob a rival gang member. First, we see Kriminal, Pretty Boy, and other gang members like, not kidding, 40 Ounce (Delpaneaux Wills) get harassed by a crazy man who wheels a cross (on wheels) through the streets asking people if they believe in Jesus.  Kriminal pulls a gun the man but doesn’t kill him, and later in the film he will pull a gun on the pastor but not kill him. What kind of gang member is this? Let’s ignore the fact that Kriminal’s house looks like it was decorated by a committee of old ladies who probably saw “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” last weekend (I guess they live with their mom…real gangsta), this film’s portrayal of what could be called “thug life” is something only two white guys who have never listened to, much less heard of, rap music could conceive.  Pretty Boy has a crisis of conscience when the crazy rambling man speaks to the van of gang members, and absconds with the stolen money after the scheme goes down.  He ducks into the church and even though cops physical enter and search the church, upon which the pastor and his congregation seem not to notice or care about the police presence as no one so much as looks in their direction, Pretty Boy is not apprehended (because the soaking wet black guy is so hard to find among the maybe 40 people there?).  He goes to the same hotel the pregnant girl is stationed in, steals the Bible (between this film and “American Sniper” it is clear that Christians do not care about the Bible being stolen. Isn’t that a Commandment?), and tries to pawn the money off on the pastor. Kriminal gets the money from the pastor after some local kids tip him off that Pretty Boy was seen leaving the church, and there’s a confrontation between Pretty Boy, Kriminal, and the man whose money they stole, which results in Pretty Boy being shot protecting Kriminal, and his dying wish being that Kriminal find Jesus. Yup.
  • Lastly, we come to the morally reprehensible plot line. Bobby (Liam Matthews) is a Christian EMT so devout that he tithes 10% of his income even though he and his nurse wife (Valerie Dominguez) have maxed out their credit cards. Apparently, the lord doesn’t offer much in the way of financial planning. One day he is at some sort of accident site where a man is trapped under something and going to die, and there is nothing more the EMT can do for him. The EMT decides to proselytize to the dying man, who we later learn was a member of the American Humanist Association (read: atheist) and tell him that he needs to accept Jesus. A man about to die may not be in his right state of mind and highly suggestible, but that’s okay because the film treats what the EMT did, up to and including pressing a wooden cross into the dying man’s hand, as the right thing to do, as long as there was no other medical attention the EMT could perform. Okay, let’s examine this for a second.  The film argues that it is okay for an EMT to proselytize to a dying person, so long as that EMT has performed everything he is capable of performing in the task of saving the person’s life.  After all, it is the EMT’s other duty, as a good Christian, to let this man know of Jesus lest he go to Hell, as any just and loving god would send a person to eternal torture for not stroking his otherworldly ego. Following this logic, a devout worshipper of Lucifer would be in the right to press an upside-down pentagram into a dying man’s hand and tell him he will not enjoy his afterlife unless he professes admiration for the dark lord Satan.  You know, as long as this Satanic EMT did everything he could to save the man with his medical skills first.  What if the EMT pressed a voodoo doll into the man’s hand and urged him to cast a spell?  Yeah, Christians are only okay with this crazy shit when they can do it.  In any case, the dead man’s wife decides to sue the EMT, but the EMT refuses to apologize for what he did, leaving him to have to pay for his own lawyer as his union abandons him.  Nice little jab at labor unions, eh Jesus movie?
  • The lawyer representing the dead man’s wife is Andrea (Andrea Logan White, an actress so bad one wonders if they named the character the same as the actress lest she forget to respond to other actors speaking to her in a scene), a joyless vindictive woman who is dating an ER doctor (Sean Astin, as annoying and piss-poor of an actor as ever) who is this film’s token so-angry-he-practically-froths-at-the-mouth atheist. This doctor is so anti-religion that he can barely finish his dinner at a restaurant when he sees a couple say Grace over their meal.  He also pretty much rips off Alec Baldwin’s speech from the 1993 film “Malice”, a film that has only remained unforgotten because of the speech in question, in which Baldwin’s character, a doctor, explains that he does not have a God Complex, but rather is God because he is real and actually saves the lives a god gets credit for.

So those are our characters and the basic plotlines.  The acting ranges from decent to atrocious, but the film itself is better made than some of these Christian films are.  It is admittedly well edited throughout, and the direction is better than these films usually are, even if the director, Jonathan Gunn, falls into the trap of awkward close-ups and boring medium shots during conversation.  I have not seen anything else Gunn has done, but this appears to be his first outright Christian film, which may explain why it’s directed half-way decently.  If he cut his teeth making “real” movies, he has more skill than the directors who only make Hallmark Channel-level work.

The writers, Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, I can’t say anything good about. Their films take place in an unusual alternative universe where Christianity is well-known but little practiced, and its adherents are constantly persecuted for their beliefs, in places like academia (their last film), the legal system, and the healthcare system.  They also do a pretty poor job of attempting to answer the questions of those who are not part of their fold. J.D.’s answer to Teri’s question about where god was when their daughter died seems to indicate god is either not omnipotent or passive and lazy.  Later, cancer-ridden Joe is asked by Samantha where god was when her husband died, considering her husband dragged her to church every Sunday and they were good people. Joe’s answer is to make a joke about the coffee they’re drinking, and he never actually answers her question.

Beyond that, the dialogue is often atrocious. Characters state their Christian beliefs in explicit sentences that sound less like human speech than like treatise on a pretentious “700 Club” press release.  I’m sorry, but when a pregnant woman has delivered her baby and is about to die, having her cry and talk about how she hopes Jesus has accepted her rings every bell of falsehood there is.  Having a gang member say similar things while being slammed against a wall? Same. The film itself knows nothing of words like “subtlety“ and “subtext”.   You may have heard the old axiom “if it’s not in the frame it doesn’t exist”.  Well, to these writers, if god or Jesus is not mentioned every 15 seconds, the film is not religious enough.  That’s if we’re ignoring hokey dialogue like “Just because I’m homeless doesn’t make me a bad mother”, or clichéd scenes where there is a scuffle downstairs in a home and a child appears on the staircase having been woken from sleep, causing the scuffling adults to stop in their tracks and feel ashamed.

The writers obviously have no idea what atheists are like in private.  Look, it’s true that many atheists are angry about religion, and not just because it causes crappy movies like this to be made.  The filmmakers just can’t seem to grasp that atheists are not always angry about everything.  I may think it’s stupid for people to pray over their food (or over anything) but it doesn’t ruin my day. If I were so angry and humorless, I wouldn’t have gone to see this movie of my own free will so I could laugh at it.  The writers also think atheists are somewhat amoral, it seems, as both of the film’s atheist characters seem perplexed that a person would not commit perjury. “When these people place their hand on the Bible they actually tell the truth”.  They don’t seem to know that atheists don’t have to swear on the Bible and can merely affirm if called to testify under oath, but whatever.  To the writers, every atheist is a potential perjurer, apparently.

The ending of this film is hilariously ludicrous. There’s an admittedly fairly well shot car crash scene on a bridge, a multiple pile-up.  Many, but not all, of our main characters are on this bridge.  There’s  a silly thing about one of the cars, containing J.D., Teri, and Lily (because Samantha and Lily end up staying with the older couple after Joe and a few nights at the shelter…jeez, can’t homeless people go about their business without being offered a place to stay?) almost careening off the bridge.  Instead, it dangles halfway between being on the bridge and falling off of it, and we’re treated to that old chestnut of people saving the passengers before the car plunges into the water below. Of course our PTSD sufferer is one of the rescuers, thus ridding himself of guilt and being no longer suicidal. This film’s simplistic depiction of PTSD is only slightly less insulting than “American Sniper”’s.  The other rescuer is Bobby, our EMT, who also saves our atheist lawyer Andrea.  Andrea then decides god must be real because, I guess, an atheist would never pull someone they dislike out of a flaming car?

That’s not the most ludicrous thing about the ending, though.  While this is going on, Samantha is at Joe’s hospital bedside as Joe passes away.  The nurse, who is EMT Bobby’s wife, merely checks Joe’s heartbeat with her stethoscope after he flatlines.  Yup, that’s all a nurse has to do when someone flatlines. Anyway, our atheist doctor comes to sign the death certificate, but not before sneering at the wooden cross beside the bed.  Then…are you ready for this…JOE COMES BACK TO LIFE.  Never mind that he’d been dead for eight minutes and that any brain recovery after three minutes of a stopped heart is rare.  Never mind that the god who decided not to intervene in the death of J.D. and Teri’s daughter or Samantha’s husband decided to RAISE THIS MAN FROM THE DEAD!  Nope, the audience is merely supposed to accept that this man comes back to life, and then cheer as he and the nurse snarkily put down the atheist doctor, who realistically has concerns and wants to run some tests to see what has happened.  FOOLISH DOCTOR WITH YOUR TESTS AND EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE. KNEEL BEFORE ZOD, I MEAN GOD!  While we’re at it, the doctor is right earlier in the film when he tells Joe that prayer and spending the night on a cold park bench when he has cancer are not the best of moves.  This film treats legitimate medical advice as heartlessness.  Odd, especially when Joe does seek medical attention himself twice in the film and, again, he could have slept in the church…or maybe the pastor’s home since he’s so keen to take in the homeless.  In any case, the film creates a miracle which would not happen in real life, and then has the nerve to say “see, atheists. Suck it”.  I admit things that may look like miracles on the surface happen, but there’s always a logical explanation that doesn’t involve supernatural voodoo and resurrections.  To quote Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen”: “Miracles, by their definition, are meaningless.  Only what can happen, does.”

While we’re on the subject of Joe, there’s a hole in the story. Samantha and Lily stay at Joe’s a night, then leave to spend time in a shelter. After this, J.D. and Teri take them in.  When Joe checks himself into the hospital to die, he sends a note to Samantha.  A new character we’ve never met before delivers this to Samantha AT J.D. AND TERI’S HOME!  How did Joe know Samantha was there?  Did god tell him, or did the screenwriters make a mistake?

“Do You Believe?” takes place in a world where homeless people always look clean and are often taken indoors by random strangers.  It’s a world where the level of god’s intervention in human affairs doesn’t operate with any consistency.  It’s a world where stealing Bibles are okay, pushing your beliefs on a dying man are okay, PTSD can be cured by saving three people’s lives (give or take), atheists are constantly angry and humorless and don’t understand ethics even though they adhere to their professional ethics, suicidal depression can be overcome by going on a date, parents and doctors conspire to trick girls into getting abortions, god kills pregnant women to bestow their children on richer, whiter childless Christians (whom god made barren to begin with, but whatever), gang members can have a change of heart by being talked at by a crazy man on the street, and people come back from the dead to spite atheists.   This film puts the Deus in Deus ex Machina.

So yes, this film veers from boring to laughable awful to ludicrously absurd.  It feels like it condescends even to its own intended Christian audience. It has gaps in logic and believability (like religion) and the dialogue is often awful when it’s not merely stilted.  The acting is sometimes better than other Christian films, and sometimes just as bad.  The direction is better than most of these films, but worse than your average non-Christian indie.  Do you believe? No. D.

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