Published September 1, 1997
Wide Awake, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, must have attracted its stars — Denis Leary, Dana Delaney and Rosie O’Donnell, all of whom are badly miscast — because it tells what purports to be a heartwarming story of a kid in Catholic school, presumably of Irish extraction, who has to come to terms with his grandfather’s death. The trouble is that it is so relentlessly heart-warming. It offers us nothing but heartwarming. It is so assiduous in warming my heart, for one, that it makes my blood boil. Well, not quite that, maybe, but I think it should have paid a little more attention to the brain and to the hard intellectual labor of making itself look vaguely real and plausible.
Joseph Cross plays 10-year-old Joshua A. Beale whose gramps, played by Robert Loggia, has recently died of bone marrow cancer. Joshua decides that he must go on a quest for God. God forbid that this quest should have anything to do with the teachings of the Catholic Church, mind you. We know that anything it might have to say on the subject of God is to be dismissed when we see on the first day of school that Joshua looks in his religion textbook (Jesus is My Buddy) and finds, he thinks, that you’ve got to be baptised to go to heaven. Then, for all the world like one of those progressive-minded grown-ups who fancy themselves as intellectuals and write film scripts, he begins questioning Sister Terry (Miss O’Donnell) as to whether this friend or that will go to hell.
Soon, all the class are chiming in with their examples of people they fear will go to hell, and poor Sister Terry, who strange to say seems never to have encountered such questions before, is non-plussed by the outburst. Joshua’s natural skepticism leads him, as it might any good Catholic boy these days, to the practices of Hindus, Moslems, Jews, and Buddhists in his attempt to approach God. At a birthday party when he is enjoined to have fun, Joshua is seen with two friends practising a Buddhist “Om” chant in the lotus position. True, when Joshua’s elder sister is excited about the visit of a Cardinal — a man who is said to speak to God — Joshua plays hooky and goes to his sister’s school to ask him to ask God about Gramps. But when he sees the old man in the lavatory, feeble and taking pills, he loses his enthusiasm, thinking that “He looks like somebody’s grandpa. I don’t think God talks to him.”
Not that the visit to the girls’ school is a complete waste, since he meets a girl called Hope and has what he describes (so cute!) as “a biological reaction.” The sexualizing of ten-year-olds continues as Hope later refuses to lay her wreath at some grotto as part of a religious service and instead presents it to Joshua. Joshua, for his part says to Hope (quite falsely) that she is “prettier than any of the models in the swimsuit edition.” Meanwhile, the quest for God continues on the principle once enunciated to Joshua by Gramps that “You have to find your own proof.” His own proof, by the way, is snow. He must have been a contemporary Catholic before his time.
You will probably be able to guess whether or not Joshua, too, finds a proof that satisfies him philosophically, but you will probably have ceased to care very much by the time he announces that, for the first time, he feels “wide awake.” God, here, is a movie-God, just as Joshua is a movie-boy, saying things that real boys would never say. In a toy store, for instance, he says to his parent, “I used to think this place was magic. I’d see the toys and think of all kinds of magical worlds.”
“What do you see now?” he is asked.
Yeah, there’s a lot of it about.