There are a few things to admire about What If…, the latest in church-backed feature-length films, but unfortunately, plot isn’t one of them. Most certainly inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life, the film takes the alternative universe premise and plays with it in some really odd and confounding ways.
Ben Walker (Kevin Sorbo, that’s right…Hercules) is an aspiring minister with a girlfriend, Wendy (Kristy Swanson), who he leaves behind in their small Midwestern town in order to get in on the ground level of a new business. His justification: more money, more ministry. Wendy’s worst fears are realized as they grow apart and he pursues an investment banking career in which he strikes it very rich. Fifteen years later, he has just been made partner, has bought a $250,000 Mercedes Benz, and is about to fly off to a weekend in Paris with his new fiancee. Everything seems perfect for Ben until, on a joy ride in his new car, it breaks down on the side of a rural road. The mechanic who shows up to help is more than he seems. In fact, Mike (John Ratzenberger) quickly tells us (and Ben) that he is an angel sent to help him figure out his life. But Ben, like the rest of the audience, doesn’t necessarily think he has anything left to figure out. Mike, and God of course, disagree. For the rest of the film, Mike and God force Ben into the life that he could have had with Wendy had he not gone down his successful business path. Ben and Wendy are a lower middle class family with two daughters, Kimberly (Debby Ryan) and Megan (Taylor Groothuis). He graduated with a PhD from Moody Bible Institute and has taken a job as the pastor of his small hometown church in which he grew up. Though Ben fights it kicking and screaming at first, he gradually realizes that the “simple” life he could have had with Wendy is/was God’s ideal for him all along.
Let’s get the good bits out of the way first. The cinematography here is average…a step above made-for-television movies. The acting is just a bit better as everyone plays their part, no more, no less. Debby Ryan plays her role as Ben’s teenage daughter Kimberly a bit too seductively. It’s hard to believe that a Midwestern minister would let his daughter strut around constantly with such a pouty, come-hither look.
There is so much that is frustrating about What If…. First and foremost, the dichotomy that it sets up between ministerial and non-ministerial careers implies (asserts?) that the former is inherently better than the latter. Mike stubbornly argues that Ben’s banking career was never the life that God intended for him. Yet we are left to wonder why Ben is so extremely good at it. On top of that, compared to his co-workers, he is even magnanimous in his work. He allows heads of corporations that his company takes over to remain in power, an act of “charity” that angers his more cut-throat co-worker. Ben even remembers his secretary’s birthday and brings her roses. Though Ben might like his toys and a pretty woman, there is no sense that he is evil. Moreover, if we are expected to identify with Ben, as the filmmakers no doubt intend, then the implication of the film is that God would have us all be ministers…career ministers…instead of successful lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, etc. Far more interesting of a plot would have been to have Mike the Angel “force” Ben to put his business talents to use for the good of others. In fact, the film seems to betray itself when Ben invests his family’s meager checking account into stock from a company that he knows is about to be overtaken by his former employer. The money he makes from this wise investment (insider trading?) helps repair both the church and his house.
The enduring brilliance of It’s a Wonderful Life, aside form Jimmy Stewart‘s performance, is the alternate reality aspect of the film, one that What If… completely bumbles. Life uses it to show a depressed, suicidal character the value of his life as a businessman who thinks that he has failed the people of his small town. It shows the countless ways in which the lives we lead can bless others, without us knowing it, even when we are not specifically “trying” to help others. What If… takes a businessman and forces him into a life that he didn’t choose and forces him to feel guilty about not choosing it. Though Mike tells Ben that he will always have the choice to go back to his former life, he can only do so after he fully commits to this alternate reality. He may face a choice at the end of the film, but it is perfectly clear that the die have been cast.
Finally, What If… embodies the kind of cultural homogeneity characteristic of much of contemporary Christian cinema that even many evangelicals are beginning to bemoan. In their article, “Being Fairly Self-Critical About Evangelical Media,” Quentin J. Schultze and Robert H. Woods ask, “What would evangelical media say to church and society if they welcomed the stories of the people who are living on the margins of social respectability?” Though they don’t give any clear specific answers to the question, they do argue that these films would be drastically different from the white, solidly middle-class output of much of contemporary evangelical Christian media. The whiteness of this film is even spelled out in the name of the church that Ben pastors, The Little White Church (I kid you not!).
It seems as if Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago funded some of the production. They gave it a prominent place on the home page of their website leading up to its release. What If… is directed by Dallas Jenkins, the son of Jerry Jenkins, author of the Left Behind series. In fact, Harvest Bible Chapel has recently hired Dallas to be a minister of media. He will be in charge of producing and directing forthcoming feature-length films from the church. Such a move signals a growing commitment on the part of megachurches to commit to the resurgent church film movement.
What If… (100 mins.) is rated PG for for some mild thematic elements and is in limited theatrical release.