Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (0-5) 4
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…
Zach Braff, directing a script he co-wrote with his brother, Adam, has given us a mixed bag of a comedy and a drama that explores spirituality, death, and family relationships. This is an ambitious program that many critics have trouble accepting, their reaction ranging from those like myself who enjoyed and appreciated what the brothers have come up to those who seem to have gone out of their to castigate the film. Reading a couple of such negative reviews, I wondered if we had watched the same film. Thus you are forewarned that this film might or might not be for you. One thing to be sure of, with so much profanity, it is NOT a family film, even though there are children in it. This family keeps in their kitchen a Swearing Bowl into which a dollar for every swear word must be placed. It is almost always Dad who does so. In the past just one use of his favorite word would have earned the film an R rating.
Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is an unemployed actor whose inability to support his family has been a subject of criticism by his widowed father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin). Even his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) who had agreed to take a tedious cubicle job inserting data into the system of the L.A. Water Department is beginning to weary in her support of her husband’s dream of an acting career. He is so desperate for an acting role that he even shows up at an audition where the role calls for a black man—all the other actors (black of course) have played Othello. Then comes the day when Gabe tells Aidan that he has to withdraw his financial support for the tuition of daughter Grace (Joey King) and her younger brother Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) at their expensive Hebrew school. The grandfather has inoperable cancer and wants to try an experimental new treatment.
Aidan is upset not because the children will be deprived of their religious education—he himself has not practiced his faith in ages—but because the local public school is a terrible alternative. Grace, however, is heartbroken because she has embraced the faith so much that she wears drab long dresses and plans to cut off her long hair and wear a wig, as so many Orthodox women do. Aidan appeals for charity from the head rabbi (Alan Rich)—who is watching cat videos on YouTube—but the old man laughs this off, delivering him a lecture instead on the need for him to become a man and support his family, rather than relying on his wife to be the breadwinner. Later, when the old rabbi visits Gabe in the hospital he rides a segway down the hall, on which he crashes into a wall while trying to make a right turn!
Aidan also has a brother named Noah (Josh Gad) who is even less of a success than he. Noah lives in a trailer park overlooking the ocean and spends his day at his computer and creating his costume for a science fiction or comic convention. He refuses to go see their father in the hospital because of the years of the senior Bloom lambasting him for his lack of success in embarking on a career.
Aidan thinks Sarah is happy at work, but in reality she is upset by the jerk who shares her cubicle who insists on verbally harassing in her. Her boss says in effect to put up with it and smile more often, though he does agree to move the coworker.
The film starts with Aidan’s voice over revealing that he and Noah as children played fantasy games with swords in which only they could save the world. Only maybe in reality it was they who needed saving, and they were just ordinary folk after all. This comes up several times, and also a sequence in which Aidan is dressed in a space suit accompanied by a little flying bot, the two apparently off on some adventure. Some critics found this offsetting and pointless, but it might be that this is repeated several times to show us the maturity process that Aidan is going through. Even as an adult he is living in a fantasy world, one in which he has depended upon his father to pay for the education of his children and in which he is unaware of how unhappy his wife is with their lot. When he tries to home school Grace and Tucker, he soon learns how unprepared he is. His attempt to teach geometry ends with her taking over the session and showing she knows more about the subject.
There are some intriguing scenes that explore spirituality, such as when Aidan talks with the junior rabbi at the Hebrew school, telling him about some spaceman dreams he has been having. Asked if he thinks God might be saying something to him, the young rabbi replies that maybe God is using the spaceman to get him to listen. Later, Aidan takes the children on a campout in the desert. On top of some rocks he speaks with them about an epiphany, an awareness of something greater than themselves. Grace has by now cut her hair to butch length, so her father turns her loose in a wig shop to choose any one she desires. She chooses a brilliant purple pageboy top. When it becomes obvious that the cancer treatment has failed, Aidan talks with the children about death. Grace has her faith to sustain her, as does Gabe, who later says that though he thought he would far the moment of death, he does not. His great wish is to have Noah joining the family around his bed when the end comes. How Grace, living up to her name, pleads over the phone with her Uncle to join them at her grandfather’s bedside is another tear-inducing moment
The most touching scene, however, is the one in which Kate Huston and Mandy Patinkin practically steal the show. Although he had not been happy that Aidan had married a non-Jew, he now accepts her, telling her she will make a “great matriarch.” He is touched when she tells him that he is the one who pulled her through during the loss of her sister. She tearfully confesses hat she wishes she had told her sister how much she loved her.
Despite its flaws (such as the dumb Swearing Bowl), this is a film raising theological and questions of values that a church or synagogue group could explore, and have fun while doing so. However, fair warning about the language and Noah’s tryst while both are wearing their sci-fi costumes should be given.
A set of 12 discussion questions are included in the review in the August 2014 issue of Visual Parables. To obtain this, go to The Store.