Not every failing marriage results in a blowout quite as exciting as the ones in Shoot the Moon, The War of the Roses, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so there’s something slightly refreshing about the banality of the marital conflicts in Fireproof, a low-budget evangelical movie jam-packed with heartfelt tips for men about how to save your marriage. Steps like: Order flowers for your estranged wife — and good ones, not a bargain bouquet. Make her dinner and light some candles. Accept Christ as your personal savior. And do the dishes once in a while, will you? (In no particular order.)
Fireproof is obviously critic-proof; though it hit theaters sans reviewer screenings, it had been heavily screened for pastors, who bought group tickets for their congregations, ensuring plenty of sold-out opening-weekend showings. Can hundreds of thousands of multiplex-invading Promise Keepers be wrong? Don’t answer that, but let it first be said that Fireproof is a huge improvement on the two earlier films made by the Georgia pastor/filmmaker/brother team of Alex and Stephen Kendrick, including 2006’s prayer-wins-football-games hit, the $10 million-grossing Facing the Giants. It helps that Alex Kendrick hasn’t given himself the lead role in this one, instead handing that assignment to Kirk Cameron, the only pro among the movie’s otherwise all-local, all-volunteer cast. The ex-child star nicely summons a manly, vein-bulging rage in a few scenes, maybe letting loose something pent up during all those years playing the milquetoast goodie in Left Behind sequels and Growing Pains reunion specials.
Here, Cameron plays a tantrum-throwing firefighter who is, as he says, a hero to everyone but his wife (Erin Bethea), a neglected ice princess who’s tired of never knowing whether hubby will be home for dinner. When she pitches a breakup, he’s all too happy to oblige, until his ministerial-sounding dad proposes a 40-day program to regrow their love. This woo-back scheme takes longer to succeed than you’d expect in a Christian anti-divorce tract, and forestalling the couple’s inevitable reconciliation proves both surprisingly realistic and (over a two-hour running time) enervating. Some of the tenser domestic moments will hit home with battle-scarred marrieds of any religious stripe, and the couple’s problems are candid by evangelical feature standards, although they hardly rate high on the secular dramaturgy scale: He’s got an Internet porn habit, and she’s enjoying an unconsummated flirtation with a doctor at work.
These are temptations faced by Christian and non-Christian couples alike, but the filmmakers hedge their bets by making the young marrieds agnostic at the start of the movie, in order to turn Fireproof into a manual for eternal as well as marital salvation. (”I’m in!” Cameron announces to a spiritually mentoring firefighter pal.) You probably can’t blame pastors moonlighting as moviemakers for wanting to pack their film with multiple messages, but the conversion subplot feels shoehorned into the more crucial marital doings, as if coming to Jesus might be just one of a long checklist of steps to restore sizzle to your marriage, right between buying roses and preparing a candlelit dinner. C