Six years after "The Passion of the Christ," anyone expecting a renaissance in faith-based movies has largely been disappointed. This is not to say such movies aren't produced. Every now and then, there's a movie made for this audience, but the audience won't hear about it from the movie critics because these elites aren't interested.
Last weekend, a new film premiered called "Letters to God." A title can't be more explicit about its plot. It's a movie about a 9-year-old soccer-crazy boy stricken with cancer, and the inspiring letters he writes each day to God. It's about prayer — certainly not a favorite topic for secular, sybaritic Hollywood.
When this movie arrived in offices of movie critics at major newspapers and magazines, the splashing sound you heard was the vomit hitting the floor.
It's an understatement to say that other limited-release films with artier pedigrees draw broader attention from the cinematic cognoscenti. Permit me a little math, courtesy of the website Metacritic.com, which assembles the major movie reviewers. Check out these examples:
1. "The Ghost Writer," the latest movie from child-molesting director Roman Polanski, now under house arrest in Switzerland. This amoral slug drew rave reviews from 35 media outlets Metacritic considers prestigious. "This old man who can't leave the house has just made the first important film of 2010," spewed Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle. "In Polanski's hands, it's an unholy pleasure," wrote Ty Burr in the Boston Globe. I'm not sure his 13-year-old rape victim would agree.
2. "Greenberg," a movie starring Ben Stiller as a fortysomething loser, directed by critical darling Noah Baumbach, had 37 major-media reviews listed. Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly cooed, "Baumbach's movies are addictive dispatches from a genteel jungle of white privilege, where highly educated people behave badly." That sounds like a convention of movie reviewers.
3. "The Runaways," based on the real-life rock band starring soon-to-be-famous Joan Jett and her "sex kitten" friend Cherie Currie. It's rated R "for language, drug use and sexual content — all involving teens." In other words, it's a surefire Roman Polanski favorite. It's in less than 250 theaters, the director is a rookie, but it still earned 35 major-media reviews.
Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post praised it as "A soaring, sympathetic ode to the outlaws, subversives and insurgents who occupy the edges of popular culture, making them safe for everyone else's dreams."
Even foreign-language films were much better publicized. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" comes from a critically acclaimed series of books by Swedish author Stieg Larssen, drew 31 reviews despite being in only 126 theaters. "A Prophet," which is not a religious movie but a French gangster-in-prison picture, drew 35 thrilled reviewers despite being on just 86 screens.
"Letters to God" was released in 897 theaters. How many reviews did it garner? Four.
This is where it becomes perfectly clear that reviewers promote what they like — those cultural subversives and insurgents — and often ignore what they don't. "Letters to God" is directed by David Nixon, a producer of two other faith-based movies, "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof," which earned a surprising $33 million at the box office. It's co-directed by Patrick Doughtie, who wrote the screenplay loosely based on his own son's courageous but losing battle with cancer.
The plot turns not only on the boy with the brain tumor, but on the booze-soaked cynical mailman who must decide what to do with this mail addressed to Heaven. This boy's earnest letters to God ultimately serve as special inspiration for the mailman and everyone else who's handed one. In the middle of stress, characters hold hands and pray like — gasp — evangelical Christians.
Now you understand why so many of those supposedly open-minded critics, the ones who will sit through hour after hour of sick chronicles of perversion, said "pass" to this movie.
As art, critics could charge that this film comes on too strong and soap-operatic, packing the emotional punch of a cancer-stricken boy in a family that lost its father to a car accident. Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times, who has a strange beat in reviewing films and plays that may otherwise go unnoticed, thought the film could have been more powerful and had some good acting, but didn't have enough "restraint and subtlety."
"Letters to God" dares to be inspirational and "small." There are no car chases, explosions or gunfights, and there are no Swedish subtitles. It opened in only a fraction of the available theaters. It received virtually no publicity.
And after that, it was still one of the Top Ten moneymaking films last week. What does that say about public demand?