In Nancy Meyers’ What Women Want, Mel Gibson played a male chauvinist who was miraculously granted the ability to hear the thoughts of women as though those thoughts were being expressed verbally. Gibson was Nick Marshall, ad exec and lady killer, who never gave a second thought to what women wanted, but took what he wanted and treated women like objects. However, after he was granted the power to perceive the thoughts of women, he came to see them as human beings.
While it is probably too much to ask of a major studio release, the film lacked even a mild inquisitiveness into the nature of human thought, language and desire. What women wanted was easily distilled down to simple, understandable words and phrases. Words did not represent thought, rather, word and thought were one and the same. The trio of writers who penned the script seemed to assume that saying what you mean was an easy enough task, however courage and shame alone held a person back from speaking their whole mind. In the film, women did not think intuitively, figuratively, iconically, suspiciously, mysteriously. A negligible distance sat between what was said and what was meant. Anyone’s desires were easily recognized and uncomplicated by conflict or doubt of any sort. When a woman wanted this or that, Nick Marshall heard that woman say, “I want this or that.” The human being was imagined as a kind of incarnate, inviolate, predestined book— although to imagine the book’s author negotiating potential plot devices, hidden meaning, misdirection, false steps, or self-deception in the mind of the characters was beyond the scope of film’s reality.
What If… is the creature of Dallas Jenkins (son of notorious apocalypticist Jerry B Jenkins) and follows the story of Ben Walker (an emotionally B&W Kevin Sorbo), who leaves his fiance Wendy for an eight month education in business so he might come back to their small town with a knowledge of making money so that he might help the poor. Wendy insists he should continue to pursue the ministry, but Ben believes he can help people better by feeding and clothing them, or so he claims. After they say a tearful goodbye, promises to return are uttered and declarations of love whispered, the narrative jumps fifteen years into the future and we find Ben has become Don Draper, lives in the city, cares only for sweet Mammon and has never fulfilled his promise to return to Wendy.
On the verge of marrying a gold-digger, Ben’s car breaks down and an angel named Mike (John Ratzenberger, Cliff from Cheers) takes him back to his hometown and allows him to live an alternate reality wherein he married Wendy and became a minister. While in this alternate reality, Ben maintains all the shallow prejudices he gained over his years as a business man, although he must learn to negotiate family life, not to mention his first Sunday filling the pulpit at “The White Church” (so-named for the congregation’s complete absence of African Americans?) where he has recently accepted a calling. His first sermon is a sixty second affair exhorting the people to seek money, because that is what God would have them do.
Were I to tell you that what ultimately comes of such a premise is positive and inspirational, I doubt a single detail could not be guessed in three tries. For a film which involves alternate realities and angels, dreams and enigmas, ecstasies and visions and two tickets to a TobyMac concert, I might remark that I’ve seen Nickelback music videos which seem more in touch with the numinous, the divine, and the mysteries of human consciousness.
What If… is a good bit like what What Women Want would have been if it had been What People Want and the audience were privy to all “thoughts.” Neither Ben nor his wife nor his teenage daughter (nor anybody in the film) seems capable of holding much back; they say what they feel, feel what they say, and little of what passes as dialog is in need of interpretation. The characters are not ashamed of their wants, but blab their feelings nakedly; they are not apprehensive, they do not beat around the bush, they do not bait their words with insinuation to see if their listeners care enough to discern the meaning hidden beneath appearances. In Till We Have Faces, Orual remarks:
Lightly men talk of saying what they mean […] When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak openly, nor let us answer. Till that need can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
Not a problem the characters in What If… would understand. The speech which lays at the center of their souls seems never further than two inches from their lips. That word which the God of the film works to dig out of the characters has not been planted deep enough to take root, though everyone talks and talks so easily.
The sentiments of the characters ride on the very surface of their words, and neither are their words fraught with suggestion or innuendo. Sorbo is certainly up for the task. He turns down his eyes and appears forlorn and sad whenever he is meant to be forlorn and sad, but also when he is communicating desire, want, anxiety, hope, patience, resilience. A smirk suffices for every conceivable emotion outside these, though the need for that smirk dies early in the film and the tone of the final two acts is essentially monochromatic. God, Who is affectionately referred to as “the Boss” by Mike the Angel, seems a vaguely benevolent demiurge Who teaches people that money is not the only thing in life, and then dumps money on their laps and makes their lives very, very easy and obviously fulfilling in the most recognizable, earthly fashion imaginable. By the end of the film, everybody has received everything they wanted from this life; living with any sense of permanent earthly loss or any hope purely reserved for the life to come is not a significant part of the Christian experience. It is hard to imagine any of the characters here encountering St Augustine’s description of the psychic agonies that accompany all earthly friendships and doing anything other than scratching their heads. What’s this about the uncertainty of all earthly judgments and the terror fraught thereby? Just have faith! The movie has a briefly noted platitude which handily dismisses every genuine issue of doubt in a few terse strokes. I struggle to understand how anyone who has known real loss— the premature death of a spouse or a child, a divorce, an affair—could take genuine consolation in the easy course of rehabilitation prescribed by What If…
I plan on continuing to acquaint myself with the emerging Christian film industry over the coming months, although I’ll confess real shock if What If… proves an exception to what I expect to be the rule. We justly deride Thomas Jefferson for stripping the miracles from the Gospels, although I suspect no few respectable, polite Christians have essentially blacked out Job and Jonah and Ecclesiastes, the parable of the unjust steward, the asceticism and Passion of John the Baptist, the loneliness and sorrow of Christ, the murder of St. James, the Diocletian persecutions, St Mary of Egypt… the happy face of William James peers out at us from Christian cinema, encouraging us to let go, reunite our divided self, convert. Alas for a world where we might not feel guilty for finishing such tasteless pap and sighing, “Not my team.”