[12 March 2009]
For a charitable, uncynical nonbeliever trying to maintain a modicum of evenhanded objectivity and open mindedness when regarding the Evangelical Christian film Fireproof, the key to achieving some level of, if not understanding, at least appreciation of the film, lies in a seemingly throwaway DVD special feature. As introduced by director Alex Kendrick, “Fireproof in 60” (as in 60-seconds) is meant for viewers/converts who have already seen the film and need their “Fireproof fix” but don’t have the two hours needed to rewatch the film. So then, Kendrick offers up this rapid fire summation that hits on all the major plot points and salient themes of the film in one minute. This matter of fact caveat does little to prepare the viewer for the brilliance of what follows.
Now, on the first count Kendrick is right. The only way to correctly experience and appreciate the profound genius of “Fireproof in 60” is to have slogged one’s way through the film first. There’s no getting around this, because you are not going to get it, otherwise. But on the other count – the feature being an accurate summation of the film – he’s mostly wrong, or at the very least, pulling our leg (though if it’s meant as a joke, it’s unclear whether it’s on us or him). Because you see, somehow, when condensed down into a minute, Fireproof – a very serious, mostly humorless Evangelical treatise/PSA on saving one’s marriage through Christ – is transformed, almost miraculously, into a breezy, humorous, seemingly irreligious romantic comedy.
Composed of both actual clips from the film and lighthearted reshoots of key scenes (for the sake of expedience mostly, but hopefully also humor), the feature does indeed somewhat superficially sum up the film while simultaneously re-presenting it as something else entirely—something bordering on the sort of gentle, self-aware parody of a Christopher Guest film. It’s impossible to suss out whether this levity is deliberate or not (Kendrick has a rather serious mien, but there’s an impish gleam in his eye that makes me think that he’s in on the joke), but in a way, this uncertainty just makes it all the better, and works in the film’s favor.
So completely smitten with this feature of the DVD was I (I must have watched it over 20 times in quick succession), that it almost – almost – succeeded in changing my overall opinion of the film. And given how low that opinion is, it in turn almost makes “Fireproof in 60” seem diabolical in its attempt to win the good graces of a potentially hostile audience.
But I’m not sure anything could totally dispel the odious, essentially misogynistic main message the film presents, at least to an unconverted audience. But is that even a problem? (The answer: yes, but let’s play… ahem… devil’s advocate for a bit.) Given that Fireproof is most definitely and deliberately cast as a didactic message-oriented film, aimed squarely at a closed audience of converts (the film is very literally preaching to the choir), is it entirely fair for me, a non-Evangelical, to level the sights of my critical shotgun and blast away? Is it just too easy?
Well you know what, no, it’s not (unfair, that is – it’s not unfair – it is easy, though), because the film played in somewhat general release in theaters last summer (making enough to open at number four in the box office for its debut), and is now being widely distributed on DVD by a major company, and, well, there is a fair bit of proselytizing going on here, even if the intended audience is already in the fold.
Fireproof traces the rapid disintegration of the marriage of firefighter Caleb Holt (Kirk Cameron) and his wife Catherine (Erin Bathea). The film opens on their not particularly internecine squabbling, the main issues being unfair division of housework, Caleb’s proclivity for the seamy side of the internet (porn is only ever referred to euphemistically as “internet trash”) and not saving any slices of pizza for the other. You know, stuff that most normal couples might argue about here or there, but are issues that are able to be worked through without going for the nuclear solution, i.e., divorce. But apparently things have come to such a head between the two that all that is left is to just “burn the thing to the ground” (fire metaphors riddle the film with obvious and groan-inducing regularity).
But even though it presents a parade of mundane annoyances as catastrophic points of no return, the real crux of the problem, which becomes more and more evident as the film progresses, is that Caleb is really just a selfish, grade A, unapologetic jerk, as is Catherine, for the most part, and probably they deserve each other for treating the other so badly. But we are meant to believe that theirs is a love worth saving.
Seeking the advice of his father, the latter sends Caleb a notebook with the title “The Love Dare”, a handwritten guide, full of pithy homespun wisdom and Bible quotes, all aimed at saving one’s marriage in 40 days (of course). Each day Caleb is given a different task leading to reconciliation with his wife. So far so good, I guess. Except that Catherine doesn’t seem to appreciate any of the things he is doing, dismissing his petty offerings as pathetic attempts to win her good graces on the cheap to look good during the divorce.
Caleb further dooms himself to failure out of the gate, because for whatever reason, he isn’t supposed to tell Catherine what he’s doing, give her any sort of idea that what he is attempting is all aimed at saving the marriage. And plus he just keeps acting like an incorrigible prick even when supposedly acting selflessly. And really, all he has to do is just apologize, frankly and humbly, and maybe treat his wife with a modicum of decency and respect, and I’m sure things would get back on track (or, as it turns out, just buy her lunch from Chik-fil-A, which selfless act is what finally wins her back. I’m not even kidding).
But this is beyond Caleb, and beyond the very precise program laid out in “The Love Dare”. Because, you see, the main intent here is not really to save the marriage, but to save Caleb’s soul, and forge a new marriage between him and Christ, which will in turn have the benefit of reuniting Caleb and Catherine together in a more profound bond, through Christ. The key to “The Love Dare” is the understanding that Caleb (or any man) stands in relation to his wife as God does to humanity – and that just as his (Caleb’s) love goes unappreciated and unacknowledged, so does God’s love of humanity – but both (Caleb and God) love unconditionally, even if the recipient is undeserving.
Now I don’t know about you, but probably the worst way to go about reconciling with your spouse, partner, or anyone in your life, is to tell her that she is, in the end, undeserving of your love. And I guess this might be the reason for not laying one’s cards on the table if one follows “The Love Dare”. But it is the central message at work here – as laid out in the film by Caleb’s father in a rather lengthy, decidedly unsubtle passage of explicit preaching just prior to Caleb’s conversion, and then reinforced by the Kendrick Brothers in one of the features. And then there’s the blatant misogyny (that women are inherently unworthy of a man’s love) lurking at its core that is unavoidable and ugly (though to be fair, it is suggested by the film’s end, that “The Love Dare” can work in both directions, it seems that women are always on the losing end). Said misogynistic message really goes a long way to actually undercutting the only viable message of the film: that marriage, or any important personal relationship, requires work sometimes, and sacrifice, and shouldn’t be quit on so easily. This is a good message, but then enfolding it in an attitude of contempt and ridicule—well, that really just shoots the whole thing to pieces, doesn’t it?
But even if it had stuck to a more humanistic message, I’m not sure Fireproof would have worked. And this mostly because the film, in addition to being morally questionable, is hopelessly hammy, dully plotted, full of poorly written characters, and more crassly manipulative than a Lifetime movie. And yet, even though it fails almost completely as a film (irrespective of its message), and is on the whole rather shoddy and unwatchable, there’s something quaintly refreshing about the almost entirely amateur, community theater-esque nature of the production.
The Kendrick brothers are members of the Sherwood Baptist Church, in Albany, Georgia (where the film is shot and set), and for the most part, the cast and crew are made up of volunteers from the church and community (in fact, just about everyone is referenced as “Church Volunteer” whenever they appear in the special features, with the exception of Kirk Cameron). There’s an Army of God feel to it all, everyone selfless and self-sacrificing and aiming at some higher purpose.
I guess I’m willing to forgive a bit in exchange for an overabundance of enthusiasm and a winning lack of irony and cynicism. These people believe 100 percent in what they are doing, quality be damned, ego be damned – it’s hard not to be caught up in their fervor. It doesn’t exactly excuse the lamentable final package, but it is somewhat reassuring to know that a film can succeed on wide-eyed amateurish idealism alone – as long as God is on your side.
Speaking of God, if somehow you make it through Fireproof without glomming on to the film’s decidedly and stridently faith-based, Evangelical pedigree, the vast bounty of excellent (no, really) special features make this abundantly clear. The 20-minute “Behind the Scenes” feature has the whole church-centric angle of the production on full display. The focus and dedication of not just the Sherwood Church volunteers, but indeed the whole community of Albany, is simply remarkable to behold. And then there’s the whole economic windfall of having an all-volunteer cast and crew – Fireproof was apparently made for a lean half million dollars and has grossed over $33 million– Hollywood could learn a lot from these amateur outsiders.
“Marriage Matters”, a seven-minute précis of the main themes of the film, reaffirms Fireproof’s program for saving one’s marriage with a direct explicitness that is remarkable for its candor, if not exactly admirable. Co-writer/producer Stephen Kendrick goes a step further than even the film itself, saying that a husband must be Christ to his wife, must suffer for her sins and lack of appreciation. He then reiterates that following “The Love Dare” is the best way to go about this recalibrating of marriage.
Which dovetails nicely into a six-minute promo for “The Love Dare” program, because the Kendrick Brothers are not content with just the film, but take it all one step further and turning “The Love Dare” into an actual movement. So there is a tie-in of the actual book used in the film, which you can purchase from the filmmakers, as well as Bible studies available on the film’s website, which can be used in tandem with scenes from the film as tools for reinforcing the crumbling foundations of one’s marriage.
It’s all very calculated and well planned, this multi-pronged attack, and again, is hard not to be impressed with. The Kendrick brothers’ enthusiastic and self-promoting commentary track consolidates this whole aspect of the project, when not heaping praise (deservedly) on their cast and crew.
A bevy of deleted scenes, many of which add much needed context to Caleb and Catherine’s relationship (so sorely missing in the film itself) round out the platter – well, of course, along with the “Fireproof in 60” feature, which (and I cannot reiterate and reemphasize this enough) is pretty much the best DVD special feature I’ve seen for any film ever. It’s a joy to behold, so witty and efficient that it bears – nay, demands – repeated viewing, and almost makes the whole Fireproof endeavor worth suffering through, just to behold its glory.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/70936-fireproof/