Morally ugly minds

Culture | Family-friendly movies need more than the absence of offensive elements

Issue: "Fighting words," Jan. 12, 2002

"It's a throwback. Nobody gets killed. There's no bad language. It's just an old-fashioned heist movie with lots of stars." Thus Steven Soderbergh describes his film Ocean's Eleven, one of the top grossing movies of the holiday season.

The PG-13 film is also one of the best-crafted films of the year: Mr. Soderbergh rounded up a top-notch cast and directed his "heist movie" with flair and assurance.

So what's lacking? A moral center. Ocean's Eleven is designed as pure entertainment, and succeeds handsomely on that front. And Mr. Soderbergh is true to his word: There's very little foul language or violence and no sex. Yet the commonplace, unrepentant criminals that populate the film are about as cool as they come.

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This charismatic group of con men and thugs is robbing casinos, which, it can be argued, steal from their patrons daily. And the owner of all three casinos is a peculiarly slimy character played by Andy Garcia. But this is no Robin Hood tale. These hoods may be robbing from the rich, but they certainly aren't turning an ounce of the loot over to the poor.

And so it goes with most of what Hollywood is offering moviegoers: entertainment, filmed with varying degrees of artistic success, all floating aimlessly in a sea of moral confusion or indifference.

There is one shining exception in theaters this winter: Peter Jackson's stunning, wondrously filmed The Fellowship of the Ring (see "Powerful Rings," page 14). Tolkien's profoundly Christian worldview, even in the hands of an unbelieving filmmaker, dominates the narrative. Without any specific reference to religion, the concepts of providence, temptation, self-sacrifice, personal responsibility, and-most importantly-a clear and radical distinction between good and evil are the driving force of this story of hobbits and wizards. This soon-to-be-classic film helps to expose what's missing from its not-so-classic peers.

On the low end, there's The Majestic (PG, for language and mild thematic elements), director Frank Darabont's attempt at a Capra-esque fable. (It's not unfair to make this comparison, as Mr. Darabont has himself repeatedly made it.)

The Majestic stars Jim Carrey as a soon-to-be-blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who, in a drunken depression, drives his car off a bridge and loses his memory. He's taken in by the residents of an idyllic small town, who believe, because of a strong physical resemblance, that he is the son of the local theater owner, thought to have been killed during the war.

Nothing about this film rings true, although Mr. Carrey's performance is adequate. Mr. Darabont and The Majestic's screenwriters can't be faulted for the story's flimsy central conceit (amnesia), as Mr. Capra was not above similar sentimentality.

But, in utilizing its fanciful story devices, The Majestic has almost nothing to say. Mr. Capra's best-loved films, those that earned him his reputation, contain simple, but elegant themes of personal responsibility, integrity, and moral independence-virtues he saw as central to the American experience.The Majestic can do little more than muster up some self-righteous, First Amendment anger about anticommunist investigations.

Whatever redemption Mr. Carrey's character achieves is lost in the film's overlong, clichéd, predictable, and ultimately ridiculous plot. The Majestic is a prime illustration of the fact that quality, family-friendly films require more than the lack of certain offensive elements.

Another, far superior, film with nearly as little to say is Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (PG-13 for intense thematic material, sexual content, and a scene of violence). This semi-true story of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. is beautifully filmed and powerfully acted. Dr. Nash is a still-living Princeton-educated economic and mathematic genius who received the Nobel Prize in 1994; he has also battled schizophrenia for most of his adult life.

Russell Crowe's central performance is commendable-understated and believable. The first half of the story, before the script begins to take big leaps in the timeline of Dr. Nash's life, is thoroughly involving. But while many of the basics of Dr. Nash's biographic details are true, Mr. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman leave out unpleasant aspects of Dr. Nash's personal history and, after taking the audience through an often harrowing look at the debilitating effects of mental illness, weakly package the story in the familiar "love conquers all" formula. That makes the film fall flat.

Ocean's Eleven and A Beautiful Mind are not without their merits as entertainment. But they should make us all the more grateful for Tolkien's achievement, which remains powerful even on screen.


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