Tom Shadyac had it all — if “all” means fame, fortune, and professional success. He directed some of the biggest box-office hits of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, including Jim Carrey’s “Ace Ventura,” “Liar, Liar,” and “Bruce Almighty,” and Robin Williams’ “Patch Adams.” Careful viewers might have been able to discern a spiritual theme, or at least a spiritual yearning in some of those films. But what made them successful was wild, outrageous comedy.
Shadyac made a lot of money and bought a lot of things. He realized that contrary to the messages we receive all of the time, the money and the things did not make him any happier. And then a literal hit on the head made him think very hard about what really matters. For probably less than the cost of one craft services table or a star’s limo to the set, Shadyac went on the road with a crew of four in search of some mind-bending conversations about how we can do better.
Shadyac had a serious bicycle accident, followed by months of unremitting, excruciating pain so devastating that he decided to commit suicide. That moment of relinquishing any sense of control was somehow liberating and clarifying. He had to decide what he wanted to say before he died. This film became first that statement and then a reason to stay alive.
It’s less clear, though, that it is a reason to go to the theater. Shadyac, energized by the thrill of engaging on big questions with great minds, has created an earnest if often incoherent patchwork on the subject of life’s purpose and meaning and how we can make things better. There’s a reason we usually address those issues through faith and parable (parables including all forms of story-telling). It is very hard to address them directly without sounding vague, pretentious, or a little weird.
At its best, this is a movie that asks some provocative questions about the assumptions we fail to question and the consequences of our current trajectory and lets us hear from fascinating, passionate people. It is an exploration of what Judaism calls “tikkun olam,” the obligation of each of us to assist in healing the world. At its worst, it feels like a trippy all-night dorm debate, unformed and uninformed, that concludes the Beatles got it right: Love is all you need. Some viewers may conclude that the entire thing is just a function of post-traumatic brain injury.
Shadyac speaks to experts in hard and soft science and specialists in history, religion, and philosophy. While his posture is often grasshopper to their Master Po, he has not quite managed to free himself of worldly pride. He asks them whether they have seen his films. He is both dismayed and energized by all of the “no’s,” almost taking it as reassurance he is on the right path if he has found people who are so unconnected to what sustained him and trapped him before. But he is very happy to find one of them is a fan of “Ace Ventura.”
At times it feels like a 1970’s journey through what we used to call self-actualization or the human potential movement as Shadyac experiments with emotion-detecting yogurt, considers that “reality isn’t an it,” and “science is a story.” He ponders a “participating universe” and learns about generosity in deer. Ha also rhapsodizes about the purity of indigenous people without mentioning that, like economically developed cultures, some of them are very violent. But it is fun to get a glimpse of some cutting edge research that suggests that our hearts may be, after all, wise than our brains, and that anger makes us dumber. And it is thought-provoking to consider the benefits of a less individualistic and competitive society and the concept of “a participatory universe where everything we do is changing it” for better or worse.
I assumed when I first heard about this film that the title was a reference to the name of God. But we find out at the end that it is taken from the answer G.K. Chesterton gave when asked what was wrong with the world. Will this awkward movie inspires anyone to consider that answer and become a little more generous and kind? Or is that more likely to come from another big budget Shadyac comedy? For the answer, see “Sullivan’s Travels.”
Parents should know that this film includes some disturbing images of injuries, animal violence, and tragic historic events. Shadyac considers suicide.
Family discussion: What are the benefits and costs of a society based on competition? A society based on cooperation? How can we best learn the difference between pleasure and happiness? Between want and need?
If you like this, try: “The Nature of Existence” and these books: The Evolution of Cooperation, A People’s History of the United States, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, and No Future Without Forgiveness