The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Dial a Prayer

Dial a Prayer is not specifically a faith-based film, although it may find some favor with audiences looking for one. The movie is about healing, forgiveness, and the need to have some sort of faith to make it through life's crises. What it also shares with (too) many faith-based pictures is a fairly predictable manipulation of the plot to get to the message. Dial a Prayer is earnest and sincere, and it has a stellar performance from its lead actress, yet lacks the punch to make the kind of inspiring impact it's clearly aiming for.

Brittany Snow plays Cora, a young woman who got herself into a substantial bit of legal trouble after an attack on a church, much to the dismay of her mother (Glenne Headly). Her often-absent lawyer father got her out of jail time. Instead, she has to do community service by answering phones at a business that logs prayer requests for the faithful. Cora is not terribly good at the job because she doesn't really believe in the value of prayer. Her boss, Bill (William H. Macy), tries to be patient with her, while co-worker Siobhan (Kate Flannery) offers some professional encouragement. Things don't really change until she meets Chase (Tom Lipinski), a guy who claims to have called in and been helped by her. After a period of hesitation, Cora starts to think that maybe she's good at her job after all. Then the pesky demons from her past rear their ugly heads again, forcing her to reevaluate her whole adult life.

Dial a Prayer was written and directed by Maggie Kiley, whose last film, Brightest Star was similarly about a young person trying to find meaning and direction. This one adds something of a religious overlay, although it's used more to emphasize that Cora has no faith in general, as opposed to no faith in a Christian way. We're clued in early on that she's had some sort of hatred for churches, and this hatred led her to do something for which she continues to pay. The film holds her specific action a secret until the predesignated second-act end, for maximum value. It's still underwhelming because the screenplay doesn't really justify what she did. Cora explains it in a speech to her father, but it all feels artificial and over-simplified. And, of course, it doesn't really have anything to do with religion, so much as it does her own emotional pain.

If that's unconvincing, her transformation is even more so. We're asked to believe that Chase's arrival signals a sea change for Cora. However, he is so flat and undeveloped as a character that it seems illogical for him to inspire such change. Through no fault of Lipinski (who's a dead ringer for Josh Brolin, and even played a younger version of Brolin's character in Labor Day), Chase is nothing more than a blank slate. He rocks Cora out of her depressed thought process because, well, the screenplay needs something to perform the task. Dial a Prayer does such a weak job of building dramatic momentum that the way these two affect each other's lives rings hollow.

There is, no pun intended, one saving grace here, and that's the acting. Brittany Snow is excellent as the troubled Cora. She fills in some of the gaps left by the screenplay, suggesting the sort of psychological wounds her character operates under. Snow nicely transitions Cora from being sarcastic about her job, to being slightly open to it, to recognizing that asking for help is the first step toward receiving it. That she does so much with a part that's so fundamentally underwritten is, no pun intended again, something of a little miracle. William H. Macy is good, too, playing the kind of sunny, optimistic Christian who can't quite understand why others don't feel the same way. His performance is sincere and without ridicule of the faithful.

Dial a Prayer has a few nice moments of humor, and its heart is most definitely in the right place. What the movie lacks, though, is the full development of its ideas. Kiley keeps everything pretty close to the surface, with each new development handled more with cliché than with genuine curiosity about the human condition. It's almost as though she's afraid to really dig into what damages a person and what brings them emotional salvation. Dial a Prayer gets credit for intent, but at the end of the day, there are much better variations on this story out there.

( out of four)

Dial a Prayer is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief strong language, some drug use and suggestive material. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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