Now I must deliver a confession. That opening paragraph was solely designed to get your attention. In truth, I very much enjoyed “Dead Poets Society.” My sister-in-law’s cousin actually starred in the film (Robert Sean Leonard, currently playing Dr. James Wilson on “House”). I thought Robin Williams’ passionate performance was inspiring, and while I could challenge a number of his character’s philosophical conclusions, that did not prevent me from recognizing this as a high caliber movie with a number of positive messages behind it.
That brings me to the movie “Courageous” which opened in theaters this past weekend. It shocked many industry professionals by having a larger opening box office than any of the other films that were newly released on Friday (#4 overall) despite being shown in less than half the number of theaters as its nearest competitor. The basic premise of the film is a call to men to be better and more responsible fathers. Yet that message gets lost in some of the criticism that instead focuses almost exclusively on the Christian worldview of the main characters.
Much of the feedback for this movie has been positive, and many of the negative reviews have raised legitimate cinematic concerns such as their opinions on the quality of acting, the pace of the film and its overall running time. While I may have a different opinion on some of those issues, I cannot dispute that they are within the legitimate realm of a movie reviewer and I have no criticism of them. My point is more about reviewers (whether professional or laypeople making comments on IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, or some other site) who count the philosophical perspective from which the story is told as a mark against it.
Hollywood features routinely advocate a particular philosophical view. Sometimes it is blatant, as in “Dead Poets Society.” Other times it is more subtle, like the postmodern skepticism inherent in the conversation of the nature of a Big Mac in “Pulp Fiction.” The fact that philosophy is imparted through the arts is nothing new.
Yet we scarcely read a review of “Pulp Fiction” claiming that it could have made a more profound impact if only it had lain off the philosophical musings. People do not criticize Robin Williams’ performance because he sounded too much like an advocate for his character’s worldview. In these films and others, viewers appear to accept that the worldviews of the main characters are simply the perspective from which the story is told. “Slumdog Millionaire” focused on people from a Hindu background, but audiences did not allow that to detract from the powerful point of the story. “Eat, Pray, Love” was a tribute to New Agers, but it still brought in over $80 million domestically. Why do so many Americans seem willing to be entertained by a film that deals honestly with the lifestyle and opinions of existentialists, postmodernists, Hindus or New Agers, yet cannot get past characters who unabashedly discuss their Christianity?Some people will react to this post by claiming there were other reasons to dislike “Courageous,” all of which are related to the overall quality of the film. Like I said earlier, if that is your honest opinion I will not dispute you. However, I believe we would be required to stick our hand in the sand to avoid admitting that much of the criticism that has been launched against “Courageous” has been because it allegedly sounds more like a message preached from a pulpit than a fictional story produced for our entertainment. To those critics I can only remind them of how audiences stood on their desks and cheered, “CARPE DIEM!”