The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry


Even with me being the atheist I am, when I watch a film that’s this embarrassingly abysmal I genuinely feel bad for Christians. What happened to the days when so many of the finest minds and greatest artists were Christian? It wasn’t so extremely long ago that literature had the likes of CS Lewis and GK Chesterton, that film had Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer, that music had… well, I guess Bach and Handel are pretty hard to beat on that front. Now, it seems as if the best the Christian faith can produce in the arts is Mel Gibson. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places, but no matter how hard I rack my brain I can’t come up with any overtly religious film, book, poem, or music that’s been even remotely substantial in the realm of art (as a whole) that was made in the last few decades.

The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry certainly isn’t any kind of saving grace for the faith. It stars an elderly Gavin Macleod (yes, The Love Boat guy) in the title role who befriends a young boy (about 12 or 13) named Dustin (Jansen Panettiere) and his two friends, the talkative Albert (Frankie Ryan Manriquez) and Mark (Allen Isaacson), and later the neighborhood bully named Nick (Taylor Boggan). Pretty soon, he has the initial trio coming to his house for “Bible Study” (can you say: Pedobear?), as well as teaching them lessons about Jeeebus, The Bible, life, death, and all that important shit. One rather puzzling one involves telling Dustin to mow the lawn of a crotchety neighbor named Mr. Barnes (Robert Guillaume). Oh yeah, and Dustin also happens to have a crush on a young girl who works in a local café named Tanya (Bailey Garno).

Perhaps there’s nothing obviously terrible about this premise, but the execution is amateurish on every conceivable level. Cheesy writing? Check. Unrealistic dialogue? Check. Abominable acting? Check. Atrocious “period” (1970s) details? Check (what the hell is up with those perfectly parted haircuts?). Prophylactic tone that’s a laughable copy of 1950s “ideal” family sit-coms? Check. Offensively obvious expositional, preachy propaganda? Check. Horridly mind-numbing and unprovocative? Check. Nauseatingly saccharine music that feels ripped off from those bad 50s melodramas? Check (you’ll want to kill the flautist by the end). Completely insular and ignorantly disconnected from reality? Check. Complete lack of visual aesthetic taste or sensibility? Check.

I had better stop the list there for fear I’ll run out of synonyms for “really bad” (let’s see, I’ve saved myself disgusting, distasteful, dreadful, hideous, invidious, appalling, execrable… maybe I’m not running too low on linguistic ammo)… But, perhaps worst than anything else, The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry resides in that no-man’s land of terrible films that aren’t so bad that they’re good (like, say, Piranha 3D, a late night SyFy original, or an Andy Sidaris action/nudie flick), but aren’t even close to being respectable. What you’re left with is a film that you can barely even laugh at, much less laugh with or admire on any conceivable level. If the film wasn’t so unabashedly self-serious in its message and delivery then at least it would provide more fodder for comedic criticism.

I rather feel bad about beating the dead horse any further. The film afterall was only made on a budget of $1 million and I’m sure the production team meant well enough, but I’m not sure if it’s more appropriate to pity them or castigate them. They’re like the filmmaking version of those early contestants on American Idol that come in just knowing they’re going to be the next great singing star, only to open their mouth and let out the most wretched aural assaults on human decency that can be committed. This film is ALMOST that bad, if only by the sheer fact that it tries so hard and fails so miserably. Just like those American Idol contestants, you want to laugh and cry and show pity and tell them gently that they’re awful and should go into another line of work/passion, but then you get mad at them when you realize that they still genuinely think they’re good and that you’re just ignorant and wouldn’t know talent if it bit you in the ass.

Ultimately, the only “secrets” of the film is the appropriate reaction to its badness… and maybe how any sane person could get through it and (to my eternal bewilderment) actually like it. Yeah, Mr. Jonathan Sperry, maybe in your world I’m going to hell, but if heaven means sitting through dreck like this regularly then I’ll gladly take that trip south. At least there I’ll have Slayer (or Celine Dion; I’m not quite sure which).

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

2 Responses to The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry

  1. Philip says:

    I was disappointed in this review as, rather than keeping neutral, the critic got personal when talking about religion and included a single swear word in that space as well. It was like he felt he had to be derogatory. Perhaps that is what an atheist is supposed to do.
    While the movie was never going to win an Oscar, it made a change from the over-the-top full-on action packed movies that seem the norm these days. This one was laid-back with a simple (maybe slightly too simplistic) message. There were issues with the film such as stilted acting etc and that is what the critic should have concentrated on.
    I fail to understand what is wrong with a movie that has a simple message and doesn’t leave one feeling they’ve been run over by a steamroller. Apparently that makes me insane. Oh wait, I think the critic is trying to say that only Christians would like this film and, as an atheist, he believes that Christians must be insane to believe what they do.

  2. Jonathan Henderson says:

    If by “got personal” you mean I admitted that I’m an atheist then, yes, I got personal. But I felt that admission was important because a good chunk of my favorite art is from Christians about their faith, and I listed many of my favorites in the opening paragraph. I can enjoy the Catholic parable that is Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthasar or Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as much as I can the anti-Christian satire in the films of Bunuel. I don’t carry my anti-Christian, anti-religious sentiments over into my appreciation (or lack thereof) of art. My point was that this film is awful by absolutely any standards. If Sperry was holding atheists meetings and teaching the kids about the evils of Christianity then it would be just as bad, assuming everything else stayed as it was.

    Plus, if you think over-the-top full-on action packed movies are all there is these days, then you need to look a bit harder. World cinema is full of artists who are making slow, contemplative, aesthetically and intellectually profound films. If you really want slow, try Goodbye, Dragon Inn by Tsai Ming-liang or Werckmeister Harmonies by Bela Tarr or Cafe Lumiere by Hou Hsiao-hsien. THAT’S how to do minimalism right. And I thought I did rather concentrate on the bad aspects, and I certainly mentioned the acting.

    The problem with the film isn’t the message but in the overly didactic way it’s delivered. I’m not the biggest proponent of the “show, don’t tell” paradigm, but crap like this is proof how bad you can get when artists decide to tell and not show. Everything in the film is a thinly veiled excuse for peddling its message. I mean, I’ve thrown greater artistic masterpieces under the bus for doing the same thing, like Mozart’s Magic Flute.

    I’m also a bit offended that you extrapolated from my review that I said or implied “Christians must be insane to believe what they do.” It has nothing to do with their belief, it has to do with their artistic sensibilities. And yes, those sensibilities would have to be completely numb, biased, and ignorant to enjoy something like this film. Again, if you want Christianity done right on film, go watch Bresson or Dreyer.

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