Bless This Mess
Don’t be fooled by TV ads or trailers for Bless the Child. This is not an edgy and cool Christina Ricci movie. Ricci has graduated to getting “and Christina Ricci” billing, which means she got paid a lot of money to hardly be in this movie. One wonders whether she could have held out for an even larger paycheck for not appearing in the movie at all.
Instead of an edgy and cool Christina Ricci movie (like Sleepy Hollow or The Opposite of Sex), Bless the Child is more like a USA Networks adorable- moppet- in- peril flick, the kind with titles like Oh Please No Dear God in Heaven Not My Baby. With some of The Sixth Sense mixed in. In fact, this script was probably dragged out from under a slush pile at Paramount after everyone started raving about that Osment kid and shhh! not telling Bruce Willis’s big secret.
Does adorable moppet Cody O’Connor (Holliston Coleman) see dead people? Sort of — she draws them, cute little wobbly crayon drawings of the child victims of a serial killer stalking Torontonians* — I mean, New Yorkers. Her aunt, Maggie (Kim Basinger: L.A. Confidential), who is raising Cody by herself since her junkie mother abandoned her, is a religious skeptic who nevertheless gets targeted by weird ladies on the bus who spout gibberish about omens and God in suspicious Caribbean accents. And there’s Cody’s Hispanic babysitter, crucifix dangling pointedly around her neck, who tells Cody to pray for her mother. Why is it that religion is only a factor in movies when Satan is involved? It’s enough to make you think there actually are devilish influences at work in Hollywood.
Satan is played by the formerly interesting Rufus Sewell (Dangerous Beauty, Dark City), as personal-empowerment guru Eric Stark. Stark runs a Scientology-like program called The New Dawn, which has slogans like “There is no god but you.” Atheism = Satanism, as we all know. Anyway, Stark wants Cody, who is apparently a spiritual reincarnation of Jesus — the child “will bring people to God,” Ricci informs us in one of her two scenes — and he wants the kid on his side. It’s a battle between good and evil that ends up feeling like a battle between the absent and the silly, and one that involves lots of FX (there were rats, Dad, CGI ones), fist fights, car chases, and funhouse spooks in lieu of any genuine suspense.
The problem with the God that everyone talks about is that he makes for a lousy dramatic character. The Old Testament God, with his jealous anger and propensity for smiting people he didn’t like… now, there was a character. But the nice, New-Agey deity that shows his face — or doesn’t show his face, as it turns out — here is nothing but a cheap out in a poorly constructed story. Good guys in a fix? Send an angel to help them out. Top-billed actor shot in the chest multiple times? Miraculous resurrection. Talk about a deus ex machina. And he’s so damn inconsistent: God can save beautiful Mrs. Baldwin, who doesn’t even believe in him, but he’s got no problem letting a smelly old bum die horribly. He uses a freckly little girl to perform random acts of kindness instead of, oh, curing world hunger in one fell swoop with that all-powerful hand of God thingy, or even just thwarting Stark/Satan during one of those innumerable car chases. I mean, would a flat tire be too much to manage?
But no. God’s work has to be done by Jimmy Smits, who left the comfort and security and steady paycheck of NYPD Blue to play… a cop. Okay, an FBI agent, Spooky Travis– er, Agent John Travis, an ex-seminary student who’s got it in for Stark and recognizes things like “a Druid rune spell straight out of the 16th century.” I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out all the things wrong with that line.
As usually happens with films as self-important and derivative as Bless the Child, by the third act this is simply laugh-out-loud funny. See Satan take Cody to the dentist! See Ian Holm, as a former Jesuit priest, steal, with a straight face, the single greatest line in The Usual Suspects! Doesn’t one of those Thou Shalt Nots forbid things like that?
*Keep your eyes peeled for the memo headlined “Ontario” something or other on a desk in the “New York City” police station!