During this year's Independence Day weekend, two very different movies arrived in theatres: Larry Crowne, staring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, featuring Shia LaBeouf and a lot of CGI alien robots. I had the opportunity to see both in a short span of time, so the two have weaved their way together in my prayers this week.
Both films were set in present day with the reality of today's economic recession as the baseline for their stories. For example, compare the circumstances that face the movies' central characters: Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) cannot seem to find a job, despite saving the earth in two previous films; Larry Crowne (Hanks) loses his job due to downsizing and the need for college-educated management, despite being a model employee and dedicated workhorse.
Yet this is where these two movies part ways - both in storyline and in the approach the filmmakers took to their production.
In Transformers, Sam longs for the high that accompanies the thrill of fighting alongside autobots in order to save the planet. It seems he spends his life avoiding anything close to normalcy, choosing a new girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) for her model figure, good looks, and money - and complaining an awful lot about being left out of the military-industrial complex. His attitude is a mixture of cockiness, apathy, and frustration - which means he fails at almost every job interview and causes his eccentric parents to perpetually roll their eyes at him.
And even when Sam gets his wish to land in the middle of an alien battle, he pushes even harder for an intensity to stave off the boredom of life and the fact that he isn't always front and center. It seems, though, that Sam's only advocate is the movie's director Michael Bay, who provides our hero with enough noise and complex action sequences to permanently damage any movie theatre's sound system - including an excessively long and explosive battle tearing up the streets of Chicago.
On the other end of the theatre this weekend was a much more quiet film, Larry Crowne. It's not a depressing movie by any means... quite the contrary: it's a lighthearted comedy with characters to care about and a great emotional payoff.
While Sam Witwicky took his career rejection with smug disdain, Larry takes his downsizing more graciously. After a few tears, he picks himself up and begins looking at new possibilities - not because he is bored with his current life but because he feels he is being offered a new opportunity to impact his world.
Humbly realizing that he can't obtain the jobs he wants without a college degree, Larry enrolls at the local community college. His life begins to chart a new course almost the moment he rides into campus (on a scooter he purchased at a neighbor's yard sale - a more economical transportation than his gas-guzzling SUV).
On his first day, three things propel him into a new future: he makes friends with Talia, a fellow scooter student (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who wants to help Larry (whom she affectionately calls "Lance") find his less-anxious inner self; he begins public speaking classes taught by the overwhelmed Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who helps Larry to understand and appreciate the spontaneity of life; and he takes a basic economics class taught by an enthusiastic, if perhaps a bit self-absorbed, professor (played here with witty charm by Star Trek's George Takai), who helps him to better grasp the economic possibilities of the world today.
Larry Crowne is a story of renewing oneself in a positive light even when confronted with the worst situation. And what is even more enlightening about this film is how many characters respond out of goodness and love for another - not to get ahead, not out of obligation, and not expecting anything in return.
Talia has no agenda when she invites "Lance" to her scooter gang, or when she helps Larry learn the art of feng shui. Larry and Mercedes don't need to give big tips to the pizza delivery people, but they do because it's the right thing to do. When Mercedes is a little drunk, even though she invites Larry into her house for some foolin' around, he calmly declines and encourages her to sleep it off (even though he has a secret crush on her), simply because it's the right thing to do.
"Live simply so that others might simply live." This quote, which has been attributed to a variety of people like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, is what Larry Crowne gets and Transformers ignores.
In the reality of an economic downturn, when things start slipping from our fingers, it is tempting to cling to unnecessary luxuries, hoping they'll never go away. This is the path Sam Witwicky took, leading to more and more destruction. But Larry Crowne took the road less traveled, and it really did make all the difference.
One would think that when Larry abandoned his SUV and a flat screen television in exchange for a beat-up blue scooter, he was crazy. Then again, the same was said about Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Mahatma Gandhi (except the part about the blue scooter).
What Larry lost physically he gained in so many other ways. He found friendship, confidence, his culinary skill set, and a budding love interest played by Julia Roberts.
This week's trip to the movies was akin to Elijah's experience in the mountains of Horeb (1 Kings 19): he looked for God in the noise of thunder, the reverberating feel of an earthquake, and the spectacle of fire - but could not find him there. But when he stopped for a moment to listen to the small simple breeze, he discovered the true power of the Almighty.
Transformers was a spectacular exercise in cinematic excess, but God is not always in the complexities, especially when life has taken a turn for the worse. Larry Crowne, which barely registered at the box office (like a still small breeze in the corridors of the multiplex), was a hopeful (and quite a fun) tale of simple living, fertile soil for God's presence.
This is not to say that the third installment of Transformers was devoid of spiritual meaning (quite the contrary - as it paints a wonderful analogy of God's protection that never abandons us). However, when put side by side, this weekend's two opening films provide a great juxtaposition of approaches to a people stuck in a struggling economic climate.
The hope that Larry Crowne provides is refreshing and grounded in great spiritual and Scriptural tradition - from Elijah to Jesus, from Benedict of Nursia to Francis of Assisi, from Elizabeth Seton to Gandhi. It reminds us that even when faced with rejection, we are called to lift our heads in hope in God and in other people. It offers us some great examples of people doing what is right and just, not out of a selfish hope that "karma" might reward us for our efforts, but out of a genuine care and concern for the welfare of another. It opens our eyes to seeing that living without excess is nothing to fear or be ashamed - in fact, it's quite enjoyable when we surrender to God's will and the possibilities he has in store for us.
Live simply, so that others might live... Live without desire, personal grudges, selfishness, and anger. Live without clinging to our property or jealously exploiting situations as to hedge our bets. In all these things, we not only save ourselves, but we do a favor for all creation.
Live simply. Live life to the fullest. Live for others and for the glory of God above.