Woody Allen's Whatever Works, a serious contender for worst movie of 2009, is noteworthy mostly as a disastrous attempt to channel Allen's humor through the caustic verbiage of the increasingly unfunny Larry David. But the problem is deeper than casting. In Whatever Works, David plays the New Yorker Boris Yellnikoff, a once-famous scientist who inexplicably ends up taking in a young homeless woman, Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a former beauty-pageant queen from Mississippi who embodies every caricature of the God-fearing, gun-loving South. Replete with Yellnikoff's screeds against the South and its religiosity, the film sees New York as the place of cosmic enlightenment for backward outsiders. The film also shows how ill-suited David is to anything beyond an extended skit and how astonishingly in decline are the artistic powers of Woody Allen. It is as if Allen set out to make a film that would fulfill the religious right's worst allegations about Hollywood. Exceptional only for its poor quality, Whatever Works is among a group of recent films that embody the shallow critique of theology pervasive among the so-called new atheists.
This is not, of course, the whole picture on religion in film in 2009. Indeed, one of the year's most popular films, an Oscar nominee that clearly benefited from the expanded pool for Best Picture, is John Lee Hancock's The Blind Side. The antithesis of Whatever Works, The Blind Side celebrates both the life of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher and the white, upper-class family that adopts Oher and gives him a chance at living well. Criticized in the mainstream media for its "selective charity," the emotionally predictable but nonetheless enjoyable film depicts the Southern and Christian Tuohy family as thoughtful, industrious, generous, and good-humored. Religious themes also surface in dour apocalyptic quest films such as The Road and The Book of Eli. Perhaps most significant of all is the success of Avatar, a deeply religious film that embodies not so much Christianity as the form of religion that has come increasingly to function as a simulacrum of Christianity in our culture, Romanticism.
Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying might be said to articulate the common thesis of the new atheists: God is the big lie. Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a struggling scriptwriter in a world where lying does not exist and is, indeed, for everyone except Bellison, inconceivable. In a world without fiction, scriptwriters are reduced to constructing bland recitations of historical fact. Bellison is not a success, either in his writing career or in his pursuit of attractive women like Anna (Jennifer Garner). For overweight, unattractive guys like Bellison, universal honesty is painful. This is made clear in the phone conversation Anna has with her mother during a date with Bellison. Seated across the table from him, she recounts his physical defects and announces that she won't be sleeping with him.
Experiencing inner conflict and some sort of genetic transformation, Bellison eventually seizes on an opportunity to lie. The pivotal scene in the film occurs as Bellison visits his dying mother in the hospital and strives to console her. After hospital workers overhear him describing the pleasures of the afterlife, they spread the good news. Soon crowds are camped outside his house, demanding further information about the "Man in the Sky" and his criteria for deciding who gets to live in a mansion in the next life. Gervais / Bellison appears on his porch with a pizza box on which he has written a set of commandments. If this were a Monty Python film, such a scene would be rife with comic possibility. Not here. One friend, realizing that all he has to do to gain eternity in a mansion is to avoid serious wrongdoing, decides simply to stay home, drink beer, and watch TV. Although the film introduces tensions between fact and fiction, truthfulness and lying, it is so devoid of imagination that it simply does nothing with these tensions. Gervais seems to want to poke fun at the banality of religion, but the dullness of this and other scenes to the banality of his own humor.
One wonders whether Ricky Gervais was an adviser for the latest Coen brothers film, A Serious Man, which stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor awaiting a tenure decision. A sort of postmodern Job, Gopnik is in a bad way; up for tenure, he is receiving secret letters attacking his prospects. His wife is having an affair with a friend of the family, and his kids are deadbeats. On a quest to read the signs of the times, particularly as they apply to his own cursed life, he consults various rabbis, who wander from reflections on the difficulty of seeing Hashem—that is, God—in the world to oracular recitations of Jefferson Airplane lyrics: "When the truth is found to be lies." But the Coens have not updated Job; they have served up a dramatically diminutive version and paired him with a vastly diminished divinity. Gopnik somberly muses about God and the uncertainty principle, which, according to his version, means that "you can never know what's going on." One searches the screen for Gervais' pizza box when Gopnik concludes: "The boss isn't always right, but he's always the boss."
Another contender for worst film of the year is The Road, based on the absorbing and luminous Cormac McCarthy novel, a brilliant piece of literature into which are woven subtle theological themes. The nearly complete absence of religious themes, particularly from the film's closing moments, is not, however, what makes The Road such a dreadful movie. McCarthy's book—a story about a father (Viggo Mortensen in the film) and son trying to make their way along a perilous path to the sea in the wake of a cataclysmic event—is an emotionally rich exploration of loss and longing, of the loving obligation of a parent not to despair in the face of the most daunting odds. In the transition to the screen, the poetry is lost; in its place is an exhausting repetition of grotesque, stomach-churning events.
If The Road is one of the great disappointments of 2009, The Book of Eli—an early 2010 release that features Denzel Washington on a post-apocalyptic path to deliver a mysterious book to a place where it can become the basis of a new civilization—is better than advertised. There are hints at the power of reading and of authoritative words—especially when those words emerge from the Word—to undergird political deceit or, by contrast, to provide the seeds for a renewal of civilization. The problem is that the filmmakers seem not to have read much of the good book; the only scriptural passage recited at length is Psalm 23. It fits, but it is also the most obvious passage. Much worse is Eli's summation of what he's learned from years of protecting and reading the holy book: Give more to others than to yourself. But Washington's performance as a man gifted with supernatural powers of self-defense and an undivided will to fulfill the command of God is surprisingly credible. He makes the viewer believe that he has heard the Word and been called. Like McCarthy's novel The Road (but not the film), The Book of Eli manages to portray God as mysterious and more worthy of our obedience than the jejune "Man in the Sky" of The Invention of Lying and other films.
If the box office is any indication, the most compelling portrait of divinity in the films of 2009 is not the Man in the Sky but the Lady in the Tree—the goddess Eywa who is worshipped by the Na'vi on the planet Pandora in James Cameron's Avatar. The much-touted look of the film is, indeed, mesmerizing; but the visuals work largely because Cameron is so effective in constructing an entire world, that of the Na'vi tribe. The very blue inhabitants of Pandora are deeply bound, one to another, and to a particular place, particularly to the sacred tree and the goddess who dwells there. The tree happens to sit on mineral deposits that are valuable to the militaristic capitalists who want to relocate the tribe, by diplomacy or war (preferably the latter), so as to exploit Pandora's natural resources. The film delivers its share of politically pointed clichés, as when the merciless military commander announces a policy of "fighting terror with terror." What is more telling is the way Avatar, like many recent sci-fi films (The Matrix and The Children of Men, for example), deploys symbols and themes from a number of world religions. The dominant and unifying myth, however, is that of Romanticism. Avatar embodies a set of standard Romantic divisions between a primitive, basically peaceful, and organic culture, on the one hand, and an advanced, bellicose, and artificial culture, on the other.
Perhaps the most instructive lesson to take away from the religious themes in recent films is the way our popular culture seems to vacillate between essentially empty conceptions of a transcendent God and increasingly fertile notions of divine immanence. Given that choice, the attraction of the latter is clear. In nature, we encounter a mysterious other whose regal power is palpable. In either case, we encounter lesser gods than the One who speaks in Eli's sacred book.