Three Ways Good Films Miss the Mark
By Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

For the past few weeks, we have struggled over whether to review three films that we enjoyed immensely, but found to be lacking in some areas. However, from them, we’ve identified three ways in which films with wonderful themes and a moral center can still miss the mark.

Case Study 1: The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn
When we search for films that are appropriate for our families, we usually consider the morality of the content. Once in a while, however, there comes a film that has a good message and a highly moral center, but lacks in craft. The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn is one such film.

A big city developer sets out to drive the elderly carpenter, Noah Dearborn ,(Sidney Poitier) off his land so that he can construct a lucrative strip mall. But, Noah is no ordinary man. He has learned a secret to life that’s given him longevity as well as the respect of his neighbors. They adore him not only for his major contributions to the town, but for the kindness he shows them. The problem with Noah is he continually distances himself emotionally and has not had a close relationship since the death of his uncle.

Sidney Poitier is a brilliant actor and does not disappoint, but the film does suffer from cliche, clumsy flashbacks, and a slightly jumbled sense of theme. The town, and visitors to it, revere Noah’s simple lifestyle which is portrayed to be idyllic and desirable. In fact, the first half of the film spends a lot of time setting up that Noah has found fulfillment. Midway through the film, though, the theme seems to shift from “the secret of life is to love what you do” to “a fulfilling life includes other people.” Both themes are significant and positive, but together they tend to conflict and water down the power of the film. The director, Gregg Champion, probably intended the former as character development and not a theme at all, but he spends so much devotion to it, that it takes on a life of its own.

The supporting actors and other elements of the film making are adequate, but if you can forgive these shortcomings, you will enjoy this story about the nobility of quiet goodness.

Case Study 2: Waking Ned Devine
Waking Ned Devine is a delightful comedy set on the Isle of Mann. Jackie O’Shea and Michael O’Sullivan, best friends, hear that someone in their tiny town of Tullymore has won the lottery. They connive to discover the winner and befriend him or her to get a piece of the loot. When they find that Ned Devine actually died from the shock of winning the lotto, they embark on an attempt to defraud the lottery out of the 7 million pound jackpot by passing Michael off as the winner. What follows are highly entertaining complications that involve the entire community and bring Michael and Jackie face to face with a possible prison term.

Kirk Jones, the movie’s writer and director, crafts an exquisite film blessed with entertainment and a strong, positive theme. It is not a traditional caper film where everything revolves around whether it is possible to get away with a crime. Jones uses the caper as a device to tell a story about community. The theme of the movie illustrates how we are all essential parts of each other’s lives–the individual to the community, father to son, husband to wife, and friend to friend. Such lofty sentiments are brought down by being couched in an immoral plot that is hard to ignore. You will be wonderfully entertained, and Jackie for all his comical avarice, does learn that the money is not important. Yet after you stop laughing, you wonder if you should have cheered for their success in perpetrating a fraud. What’s more in one scene the film uses male nudity for comic effect. An otherwise good film becomes questionable..

Case Study 3: Dave
For Latter-day Saint families, the words “If it weren’t for that one scene” are way too familiar. They, of course, refer to a scene whose explicit sexuality, violence, or profanity (or all of the above) seems to ruin an otherwise great movie for us and our families. Unfortunately, more and more PG-13 and even PG movies feature “that one scene” that makes everyone squirm and sends Dad searching frantically for the remote control. Often by the time he has found the fast forward button, it’s too late. Dave is an example of this phenomenon.

Like Waking Ned Devine, Dave is well made, highly entertaining, and has a powerful and uplifting theme. Dave is a simple man who runs a temp agency in Washington D.C. He has the good fortune of being a dead ringer for the president of the United States and loves to do amateur performances on the side. The Secret Service enlists him to double for the president in a highly exposed setting..He does a good job of it, but he is caught into staying on playing the role when the president suffers a major stroke. The conniving men surrounding the president resolve that they cannot inform the vice-president of the incident for fear of losing their own positions of power. They embark on an elaborate scheme to make the country believe that Dave is indeed the president. The theme of Dave reminds us what it means to sacrifice oneself for a higher cause and the need to try to do something to improve the world.

After capturing our interest completely, the “one scene” occurs–about sixteen minutes into the film. It depicts the corrupt President in an immoral act with one of his aides. Also unfortunate is the fact that this is a major story point. This is how the President has the stroke. Director Ivan Reitman doesn’t condone the behavior, but he does fall into the trap of showing us too much of it. If we fast forward through the objectionable part, we miss the event that sends the lovable Dave into his special world of politics and corruption. The remainder of the film is highly entertaining, devoid of objectionable content, and perfectly enjoyable.

Film is a visual medium and therefore good filmmaking shows the audience instead of telling them. In the old days, a Hollywood Production Code would place restrictions on what movies could represent, but in today’s rating system, no such restrictions exist. Filmmakers ignore the use of inference and explicitness has become the norm. The tragedy of Dave is not its lack of morals, its ability to entertain, or its craft, it’s “that one scene.”

The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, Waking Ned Devine, and Dave are films that we would love to recommend wholeheartedly. They are entertaining and uplifting, but each one is marred. These films highlight the difficulties Latter-day Saints face wandering through their local video stores looking for entertainment. It’s getting harder and harder to relax in front of a “good” film.