Produced by: Alex Kendrick, Stephen Kendrick, David Nixon
Written by: Alex Kendrick, Stephen Kendrick
Edited by: Alex Kendrick, Bill Ebel
Cinematography by: Bob Scott
Music by: Mark Willard
Starring: Kirk Cameron, Erin Bethea, Ken Bevel, Jason McLeod, Perry Revell, Stephen Dervan, Harris Malcom, Phyllis Malcom, Renata Williams
Inspired by the book The Love Dare by Alex Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick
Fireproof was reportedly the highest grossing independent film of 2008 – a year that included indie runners up Vickie Cristina Barcelona from Woody Allen and the lauded Slumdog Millionaire, which won the Oscars for Best Director, Adapated Screenplay, and Picture. While I’ve yet to see Allen’s contribution, I’m a bit baffled to have learned that Danny Boyle’s harrowing, inspirational epic was outperformed by a megachurch-produced film based on a Christian self-help book that relied upon donated time and money to be made. I’m not saying that such a film would inherently not deserve such success based solely on those factors, but when you consider the fact that Fireproof relied not on TV spots and theatrical trailers but primarily upon word of mouth that began with screenings for church leaders, it really says something about the zeal Christians will put on display for anything potentially popular that they think will get the message out about their beliefs. As a Christian, however, I think it’s my duty to point out that I’m fairly certain that many of them have also deluded themselves into thinking that this cinematic equivalent of panhandling the congregation for an offering is also somehow a good film.
The threadbare story of the film goes as follows: Fireman Caleb is devoted to his job and his colleagues, but he’s having some marital issues with this wife, Catherine, who works as a PR rep for a local hospital. She thinks he’s become distant, and he thinks she’s become indifferent to his feelings and hard work. They quickly decide that it’s time for divorce. Dismayed by this development as well as his son’s self-centeredness, Caleb’s father recommends that he hold off on the divorce for 40 days and, during that time, follow the steps in a book that saved his own marriage and that he’s certain will save his son’s marriage, too. The book is called The Love Dare, which, if you didn’t read the credits above, is a real book written by this film’s creators, brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who also happen to be pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church (namesake of Sherwood Pictures) in Albany, GA – which is also the movie’s setting.
Given that the film is essentially a longform, backdoor advertisement for a book the filmmakers released the very same year as their film, any sense of suspense is immediately thrown out the window, as you immediately know that everything is going to be okay for these two. The Kendrick brothers wouldn’t necessarily be the brightest guys if they even suggested that their book’s steps would not work out for the troubled couple. That would be bad for business. The childish issues between them are shown to be hard to overcome, yes, but petulant little Caleb is urged by his father to continue following the book while, at the same time, he is also urged to rediscover a long forgotten relationship with God and become a born again Christian. Scenes between Caleb and his lieutenant, Michae, serve as reinforcement for that inevitable transformation, as Michael himself has gone through many of the same struggles, and yet he’s still with his wife thanks to his own change of heart and mind.
I’ll avoid the film’s message about Christianity being the solution to divorce (Actions do not absolve, and only salvation justifies – it does not perfect, people! Christians do get divorced, and for far more nuanced reasons than simple giving up on one another!) and instead tell you about the positives in the movie first. It… well, it at least does not pin all the blame on a character who does not wholly deserve it, like Johnny. Both Caleb and Catherine are both shown to be imperfect people with serious issues. Caleb acts like a selfish, hot-tempered child who thinks his line of work justifies his treatment of his wife, while Catherine has slinks into the background of their marriage and mires herself in the gossip of her friends while entertaining the idea of having an affair with a doctor.
That being said, Caleb is the primary focus, the one who is encouraged to take action and save his marriage, and the film offers him and, in effect, the audience some whacky solutions to a marriage that has already devolved to the point where the only thing the husband and wife can agree upon is getting a divorce. Buying flowers, suddenly saying nothing negative to her for a day (just a day?), calling to ask about her day… Call me a cynic, but these “love dares” he should have been doing in the first place seem like too little, too late. Though they progressively become more challenging, I don’t blame Catherine for thinking that Caleb had ulterior motives given the insultingly simplistic tactics he’s trusting in. Caleb’s transformation is meant to be a hard, long process (a trial by fire, if you will), but doesn’t even have that much communication with his still-angry wife, as if these acts were supposed to stand on their own after what was essentially a breakup. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense for him to tell her, if he really did have a change of heart, that he’s not giving her up without a fight, at the very least? Sure, he tells Dr. Love to back off, but that’s more out of jealousy than anything.
The transformation does not feel organic – not just to Catherine, but also to the viewer. Caleb struggles with portions of these daily exercises, yes, but mostly because he is, simply, a selfish brat. It’s one thing to start doing things for his wife, but it’s another thing entirely to mean it sincerely, especially at this point, where stakes are improbably high. Why isn’t he dealing with his very obvious anger issues, for example? At one point, he becomes so infuriated with her that he whips out a bat and pummels his garbage can, a continuation of a bit that is played for laughs thanks to an ever present neighbor next door. As someone who has grown up in a household where fights sometimes resulted in broken property, I can tell you now, these jokes fall flat in the context of the film and even in the context of what just came moments before. Even if the marriage is mended, how long until Caleb uses the bat on her? It’s insulting, really, and Caleb’s transformation occurs as if a switch were flipped, with Caleb suddenly realizing the importance of what he’s supposed to be getting out of these actions and commits to everything. And even then, the solution to his computer porn addiction is once again violence.
The thing that taints Fireproof even further than the hackneyed storytelling, unremarkable acting, and a misunderstanding of how sometimes marriages really aren’t as simple as they seem, however, is that it’s pretty much just an ad for the filmmakers’ book, and yet we are expected to take this glorified infomercial seriously as a narrative, too. It’s a wonder that at no point in the film did Kirk Cameron turn to the camera and say, “Hi, I’m Kirk Cameron. You might remember me from such programs as the one where I told people that they were going to hell and that other one where I invited an ‘expert’ on the air to show how the human-cultivated characteristics of a banana is proof of an Intelligent Designer. But I’m not here today to talk about that. Today, I’m going to tell you about how you can save your struggling marriage with 40 easy steps. But first, let’s meet with Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who are not a gay couple, despite having the same last name, just so you know….”
There really isn’t any reason why Fireproof should have succeeded as a work of art. With all due respect, I think a lot of my fellow Christians meant well when they voted with their cash and flocked to the film in droves, looking for a positive message and hoping that it would change lives, both Christian and non-Christian. I understand that, even if I’m not in agreement with the sentiment. Film is, first and foremost, art, and while art can more often than not does convey a message, making that message the primary driving force for your film is a recipe for disaster.
Fireproof is either a misguided parable about failing marriages at best, or it is a shameful ploy to rake in the easy bucks on the part of the filmmakers. It can only be called a success in possibly one aspect: I’m certain it made everyone lots of money, and I’m certain it will make for a good talking point for pastors who would shill out a false prosperity gospel message about how doing the Lord’s work will lead you into financial wellbeing, even if that was not the Kendricks’ intentions. As for the filmgoers who want positive messages in their films and literal honest-to-God meditations on spirituality without having to make excuses or compromises for the quality of your entertainment, might I suggest watching Chariots of Fire or Tree of Life, instead? I know they’re Hollywood, but believe me when I say that sometimes you can find affirmation in the strangest places when you’re faithful.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 0.5 / 5