Monday, January 24, 2011

Sappy And Deliberate, Letters To God Is A Faith-Based Flop.

The Good: Family-friendly
The Bad: Pacing issues, Sappy, Dogmatic, Fails to wrestle with some of the big issues, Choppy character arcs.
The Basics: Well-meaning and intended to pull on the heartstrings, Letters To God is a melodrama of family fare that is utterly unsurprising to viewers.

Last year, I had an unlikely double-feature with Date Night (reviewed here!) and Letters To God. First off, it is worth noting that Letters Of God is not, classically “my type of movie.” While I try to open myself up to all sorts of things, watching family-friendly fare often leaves me unimpressed. I was, admittedly, biased going into the faith-based film, but honestly all I was looking for was a single surprise, a single moment that did not meet with my preconceived notions of how a film targeting an evangelical Christian audience would go. Alas, I found myself quickly disappointed. There are no surprises here and Letters To God is essentially a Hallmark film that made it to the big screen.

In recent years, the Christian Coalition and evangelicals everywhere have sprung upon the idea that if they aren't fond of mainstream television and films, they need to create the family-friendly fare they seek. This inspired such cinematic outings as Left Behind and Fireproof. Letters To God is the latest in a series of such films and it lacks the action of Left Behind, so it quickly becomes a one-note sermon on the relationship Man has with god. And for those who just want entertainment or a decent story, this quickly wears thin and becomes a repetitive series of proselytizations which drag on for almost two hours.

Tyler Doherty is an eight year-old boy who is battling cancer and seems like he would be an embittered child. Instead, he gets through his days, playing with his friends and family when he is able, but more often than not finds himself bedridden. In those times, he writes letters to god and mails them out. The letters fall into the hands of Brady, a postal worker at a loss as to what to do with them (whatwith not having a postal address for the divine). But, for some reason, despite having lost hope in virtually everything and everyone else in his life, the letters take on a significance to Brady and he finds himself returning to church to meet with the reverend about what to do with them.

As Brady struggles with the level of hope and survival instinct Tyler has, he begins to form a bond with Tyler and Maddy, Tyler’s beleaguered mother and caregiver. Witnessing their struggle and Tyler’s level of faith encourages Brady to return to god and try to put his own demons of the past behind him.

Letters To God is best analogized as being like the Will & Grace parody from The Simpsons or Family Guy where the show is portrayed as an otherwise banal sitcom, save that they throw the word “gay” in before virtually everything (going to the gay supermarket, etc.). Letters To God is a plodding melodrama that throws “faith,” “hope,” and “god” out so frequently that I was almost tempted to keep a count just to keep myself entertained during the actual film. And, like a sitcom with a simplistic resolution, Letters To God fails to grapple with complex ideas in complex ways. So, for example, Maddy has a fit at one moment about how everyone keeps quoting scripture to her, but that doesn't help . . . but characters keep doing that and suddenly it is no longer an issue.

Brady is down on his luck largely because he lost a child of his own (his son was taken away from him) and has carried that guilt. After quite a bit of time carrying that, he’s an emotional wreck who does not have much going for him and it is picking up the postal route where one terminally-ill child suddenly gets him to question everything. “God has a plan” is not a terribly satisfying answer to human suffering and it certainly does not make for an overly ambitious or exciting cinematic experience. Instead of rejecting the notion of an interventionist god – something that would not be terribly untoward when children are suffering – it is the blind faith of Tyler that sways Brady and gets him to question his cynicism.

The result is a movie that is all about blind hope and the entertainment value is remarkably low. Letters To God directors David Nixon and Patrick Doughtie seem to be trading on the casting of cute children Tanner Maguire (Tyler) and Bailee Madison (Samantha, Tyler’s best friend) to carry the audience and cute only goes so far. Maguire is appropriately bright-eyed when called upon to be and Madison has a good, obvious kid-charm to her, but neither one brings any real depth to the roles. Instead, Madison seems stiff at times and Maguire is goofy in some of the moments that are supposed to carry the most emotional weight.

Jeffrey S.S. Johnson eats up a surprising amount of screentime as Brady and Letters To God quickly becomes Brady’s story. Johnson slouches through the early moments of his performance appropriately and as his character becomes more filled with hope, he does all of the cliché acting bits: standing taller, shaving, infusing something other than a dead-eyed stare into his glances. The problem with Johnson’s performance is that he does not infuse it with anything terribly original that we might not have seen before on, say, an afterschool special about alcoholism.

Finally, Letters To God feels long and at almost two hours, this is the result of serious pacing issues. The movie is slow to start, slow to develop and annoyingly slow to resolve. As a result, there is low entertainment value and most viewers not swept up in the hype by peers who just want “good family programming” are likely to be bored by the stunning lack of content or originality in this particular film.

For other films about characters seriously struggling, please check out my reviews of:
28 Days
The Lost Weekend


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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