A Long Way Off is a film that is a modern retelling of the story of the prodigal son. As such it has the foundation, firstly, to be an effective human drama and, second, transition well to a modern secular retelling. However, its successes and ultimate failures are attributable mostly to what is built upon the foundation of one of the most beautiful stories the Bible has to offer.
Aside from a title card at the beginning citing the chapter and verses of Luke wherein the story is disseminated first, the source is never that overt, save for plot points (should you know them) and certain pieces of dialogue (again, should you know them). That title card at the beginning is indicative of one of the issues the film has which is that of lacking in subtlety.
Not to say that this film ever truly hides its nature as faith-based entertainment, but the narrative of a man struggling with his purpose, family, ultimately faith is universal enough such that it should translate to all audiences regardless of their religious or other affiliations.
That’s why in a story of unconditional acceptance of a son by his father, and by extension of the Father for all His children, its an exceptionally curious and tonally incongruous decision to include divisive material that isn’t even veiled but appears in the forms of propaganda, virtual infomercials, politicking and more. One example is Sean Hannity introducing a book that “has converted many liberals to conservatives.” Another is a scene that has narrative purpose: the lost son seeks a gun in self-defense and the salesman is not only a clairvoyant, knowing he never used one, but also a mouthpiece for responsible application of the second amendment.
This isn’t a comment fueled by personal leanings but one that is made noting the lack of narrative necessity of these asides; in the aforementioned gun-buying scene Jake, the prodigal son; didn’t have money anyway, so it was crafted just to make the point that there are responsible gun vendors, etc. These are just a few examples. People who took issue with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty would have an embolism watching this film. Product placement is one thing (and a necessary evil of all levels of filmmaking) but when it starts to feel like you’re not just acknowledging the reality of corporate influence in the world but like you’re leasing airtime to people for infomercials, that comment overtly on the story mind you, it becomes a further issue.
Granted in the modernization of a story there needs to be a sojourn into excess and secularism. However, the perils of leaving home and forsaking ones family cannot be cartoonish if the film is to maximize its full potential. And that’s about the only way to characterize an eye-patch clad gangster with a wise-guy accent. The film still, in spite of itself and due to the strength of the story its basing itself on, has its moving moments.
It seems as if a few things were at work here the film was trying to cram all its ideas in one story whether they truly fit or not, when it really didn’t have to. Despite some stilted scenes and dialogue the core of the film does function, but in an updating it is really about the update that makes or breaks it. A litmus test of a faith-based film is if it’s preaching to the choir. It sounds like a platitude but it’s true, it has to work as a film. This film more often then not seems like it’s not only preaching to the choir but trying to tell us who is welcome in the choir – or maybe just sell us books also.