Dances with Films 2017: The Meaning of Life, by David Bax
First things first. Who the hell names their movie The Meaning of Life in earnest? Even more than 30 years ago, the Monty Python crew knew that such a grandiose title could only be accompanied by absurdity. This time around, director Cat Hostick has opted instead for aggressive mediocrity.
Tyler Shaw stars as Finn, an aspiring singer-songwriter living in his parents’ suburban home and listening to his father’s (Dan Lett) continual assertions that he should quit music and go to college. To save up some money and also maybe just to get out of the house, he takes a job as a singing clown in a children’s hospital, making this a somehow even more mawkish take on Patch Adams. He befriends a terminally ill little girl named Sophia (Sadie Munroe) who inspires him to write songs while he inspires her to paint.
There’s so much inspiration going on in the movie that there was none left over, it seems, for Hostick herself. It’s as if a few particulars were plugged into a Middlebrow Indie-Lite Weepie Generator. One character makes his big declaration, saying with loud determination, “The only thing I would regret is giving up!” It doesn’t matter who says that line. It’s such a vague platitude that it could have come from almost any other movie, let alone any of a handful of the characters in this one. Meanwhile, even the plucky guitar sounds on the score feel copied and pasted.
Speaking of music, The Meaning of Life ought to feature it more prominently, given that it’s the purported passion of its lead. But Hostick doesn’t have time for Finn’s songs. In all but one case, he barely gets more than a verse out before she cuts away or interrupts him. Come to think of it, maybe it’s not about time at all. Maybe, like Finn’s parents, Hostick doesn’t believe in his talents, either. I can’t say I blame her but it does make it feel even more disingenuous that, the one time he plays a single song in full, he is immediately discovered by someone with ties to the record industry.
All of this is not to say The Meaning of Life is an incompetent film. On the contrary, it’s so workmanlike and by-the-numbers that, when the story goes where you knew it was going to, it’s hard not to shed a few tears. The movie gets that part of the job done, at least. But that’s the problem; it feels like it’s merely doing its job. The Meaning of Life is bland, efficient and inoffensive, like the inside of a brand new Burger King.