“Its thinly veiled message of social conservatism and religious affirmations as the pathway to an ideal life is delivered with all the predigested sentimentality of a Hallmark card.” – Major Movie Reviews
Why is it Christian movies so quickly remind us of Hallmark? Will there ever be a Christian movie that actually invites an audience outside the faith to engage with their story?
The Ultimate Life is about as close as it gets, and it got a 14% on the tomatometer, with 65% of audiences supporting it. Critics are beating up on this one, saying it has “wooden acting”, is too “predictable”, “stereotypical” and that it “appeals only to the converted.”
From a strictly objective position, looking only at the method of the storytelling, I find it hard to argue with these points.
I hate to agree, especially understanding that openly sharing one’s faith paints a target over the heart, but many Christian movies have fallen prey to their overt delivery of a very pertinent message.
In an editing class, the mantra was “Resist the Urge to Explain”. In acting class we were told not to “project”, and in screenwriting class, the religious idiom was “show, don’t tell.” They all describe the importance of conveying a story implicitly, not explicitly.
A good story provides context for the language of the heart with a portrait of words.
In an article titled, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” writer Paul Elie observes, “Where has the novel of belief gone? The obvious answer is that it has gone where belief itself has gone. In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether.”
Fiction has a unique ability to transcend prejudice; it can tell a story without getting hung up on facts, point out a cultural phenomenon and challenge audiences with a calling. But standing on a soapbox is the surest way to turn off an audience outside your own worldview.
Entertainment and allegory do not have to be polar opposites, they can be synonymous and to that effect, The Ultimate Life makes great effort and some improvement in the Christian movie genre. However, it also seems bashful when it comes to delving into the richness of internal conflict, save one character – or rather, the protagonist at a certain season of life.
Before it arrives at the real point of dramatic tension, however, there are some grievances I have against the story.
The Ultimate Life began with several paragraphs of written text on the screen. It told the story, literally, instead of showing it. Then it proceeded to methodically place the building blocks of “protagonist, problem, plan” in orderly fashion, almost always accompanied by a softly played piano. About forty minutes pass before the movie finds its sea legs, when Red is introduced. Red’s story is recounted as his grandson reads his journal, gleaning the practical wisdom of his grandfather’s life experiences, beginning when he ran away from home as a teenager.
It’s middle-aged Red that has the most relatable and compelling story, and because of this, the storytellers convey it much more naturally and stop spelling things out bit by bit. The audience is shown a man with good business sense and a very hard work ethic who is driven to provide for his family and prove wrong his father, who told Red at a formative age that he was doomed to pass on the family legacy of a meager living.
In a self-fulfilling prophecy, Red realizes his dreams of becoming a self-made man and a billionaire with a wife and four children – and an utterly empty existence. Red’s children grow up becoming less than the adults he had assumed opportunity would make of them. Instead, they relate more to their father as welfare recipients, more attached to his wallet than his heart.
At the conclusion of Red’s story, which should have ran the entirety of the movie, The Ultimate Life resumes its Hallmark stereotype, only toned down a bit from the beginning sequences.
Despite all this, I recommend going to see the movie in theaters. First, middle-aged Red’s story takes up the bulk of the movie, thankfully. Also, even if you’re not of the Christian faith, the movie is about the importance of loving your family, making your life all about them. And, if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy a simple story about a man who learns what it really means to provide for his family.
Simple stories are the best ones to share, they make it a point to delve deep into meatier subjects, and fiction is a great platform to step inside the worldview of a character who represents so many men today.
“Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” – G.K. Chesterton