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`Conversations' aims high, misses

The film based on the hit books is woefully earthbound, hurt by cliched characters and threadbare platitudes.

October 27, 2006|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

I wanted to have my own heart-to-heart with the Lord after watching "Conversations With God," a biopic-infomercial that opens today about Neale Donald Walsch's rise from homelessness to bestselling New Age author.

I'd ask tough questions just like Walsch (played in two dimensions by Henry Czerny) did when he was homeless in Oregon.

With his life at rock bottom, he claimed God started to speak to him. Walsch said he wrote down the Lord's loving and nonjudgmental answers on stacks of yellow legal pads -- apparently less cumbersome than stone tablets. And those transcriptions became the "Conversations With God" book series that has sold a reported 7 million copies in 34 languages worldwide.

OK, Lord, now it's time for the questions I jotted down while watching "Conversations."

For starters, since when do you talk like Dr. Phil? Some of your lines of dialogue include: "You are your own rule maker." "If you want to create abundance for yourself, create it for someone else." And "to restrict you would be to deny the reality of who you really are." Seems to me that God can do better than Hallmark -- or Tony Robbins. What's up with that?

Another thing: Why didn't the filmmakers stick to Walsch's compelling spiritual rags-to-riches story (the bearded author who once ate out of trash bins promotes himself as an "accidental spiritual messenger") instead of turning it into a feature-length infomercial?

As when his hard-bitten publisher looks him in the eye and says, "You may think I'm old-fashioned, but I think your book can change the world." Then there are the scenes where strangers lavish praise on Walsch, telling him that his book did change their world. The only thing missing is an 800 number across the bottom of the screen.

And what's with turning Walsch into a caricature of a modern-day saint while only his supporting actors are left to show any flashes of humanity? Even in small roles, Jerry McGill as the homeless camp's wheelchair-riding landlord and Zillah Glory as a worker Walsch meets on the bus are memorable -- and human. But for someone with endless patience and bottomless generosity, the Walsch character comes across as oddly irritating.

Just a couple more questions, Lord. When are the majority of movies with overtly spiritual themes going to rise to industry standards? "Conversations" has all the telltale signs of a religious film that keep your basic moviegoer away: stilted dialogue, overwrought music, the subtlety of a daytime soap.

In the wake of successes such as "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," aren't you afraid that too many films like "Conversations" will send your flock running in the direction of "Saw III"?

Oh, there's one more thing I've always wanted to know: Why is it that Hollywood can realistically craft entirely new worlds, but it can't make a realistic fake beard?

I'll be waiting for your answers, God, legal pad in hand.


`Conversations With God'

MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, some language and a brief accident

A Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Director-producer Stephen Simon. Screenplay Eric DelaBarre, based on the books by Neale Donald Walsch. Director of photography Joao Fernandes. Editor Sherril Schlesinger. 1 hour, 49 minutes.

In selected theaters.

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