From God’s (rear)end to our cinema screens plops the latest pile of obsequious Hollywood shit: the aptly and ironically titled Godsend. Consider this less-than-heaven-sent item another example of offensive post-9/11 inoffensiveness, a pseudo-horror film-cum-cautionary tale trapped in PG-13 purgatory. Wholly wasting the considerable talents of actors Greg Kinnear, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, and Robert De Niro seems a near impossible task. And yet, director and former Royal Shakespeare Company manager (!) Nick Hamm (whom one wishes would slice the meat as thick as his moniker and the material demands) all too easily achieves this unforgivable triple sin.
It’s initially refreshing to watch Kinnear and Romijn-Stamos as Paul and Jessie Duncan, a city-dwelling married couple faced with a timely moral conundrum. After their eight-year old son Adam (Cameron Bright) is killed in a car accident the Duncan’s are approached by the fidgety you-know-I’m-evil-don’t-you Dr. Richard Wells (De Niro). He runs the—get this—Godsend Institute, a high-tech medical facility that engages in illegal cloning experiments. Wells offers to replicate Adam, but only if Paul and Jessie give up all remnants of their old life and move to the Stepford-ish Vermont town of Riverton. They agree to Wells’s terms after some expositional flip-flopping meant to pass for soul-searching inquiry, and Adam is soon reborn. But then, of course, all hell (or more MPAA appropriately, heck) breaks loose.
We might rightly cringe at Godsend‘s thuddingly obvious bibilical allegory, though this turns out to be the film’s least offense. Coming so soon after The Alamo‘s gut-churning racism, it feels near tiresome to point out Godsend‘s equally head-slapping idiocies. But what else to make of such dissonant scenes as this: an attempted robbery on Kinnear’s schoolteacher character by a former black student, seemingly dropped in for both character manipulation and a Sodom & Gomorrah-like juxtaposition between city and suburb. Or what of the film’s cruel characterization of the black nanny Cora Williams (Janet Bailey) who holds the contrived key to Godsend‘s twisted plot convolutions? The poor actress, flaring her nostrils and whimpering about “Eeeevil!,” seems to resurrect all sorts of cotton-pickin’ stereotypes before our very eyes; it doesn’t help that her character lives in a run-down old shack that sticks out like a sledgehammer signifier within its Hollywoodized lower-class landscape.
Issues of class and race are integral parts of Godsend‘s story, yet Hamm bloody well ignores them, throwing his weight behind the cheap scares supposedly demanded by genre stricture. Because of these misplaced priorities, scenes such as the film’s climactic church-set confrontation, which bravely hinges on two characters arguing a moral point, lack the visual heft of their philosophical conceptions. But the true mark of Godsend‘s failure and offensiveness comes from the readily apparent indecision of its creators. Hamm can’t hide his lack of passion and conviction, nor sidestep his wishy-washy point of view, and this strongly suggests outside interference in the form of studio head groupthink. Godsend is finally less angering than it is depressing, a sad comment on our collective desires for simplistic symbols and Pavlovian manipulations in lieu of more complex and soulful cinema.