We Found It on Watch Instantly: Louis Gossett Jr. in The Lamp
What It’s About: Two parents still reeling over the tragic death of their young child find a genie and wish for cash.
Who It’s For: Delusional orphans and Louis Gossett Jr. superfans.
While I rarely trust the opinions of the Netflix user community, sometimes the member reviews are exactly what draw me in. It certainly worked in the case of The Lamp. “5 Stars: They had me at Louis Gossett Jr! Wonderful cast, wonderful story and something the whole family can learn from.” You had me at they had me at Louis Gossett Jr.! Mr. Gossett Jr. is a notorious deal-closer in Hollywood. They say only two men’s names can get a project green-lit regardless of the content or the cost: Steven Spielberg, and Louis Gossett Jr. “Say no more. Sold.” That is what the fat cats in Tinselwood say when someone pitches them a movie starring Louis Gossett Jr.
Unfortunately for me and all the other Gossettheads out there, there’s not nearly enough of him in this movie. It is mostly Jason London looking puffy-faced, both from crying and yelling and also probably other non-movie-related things. Man, there is so much crying and yelling. Netflix places this movie squarely in the “Family Features” and “Movies for ages 11 to 12” categories, and it is mostly a painful, heart-wrenching story about how grief can haunt and poison all your living relationships. Fun! What exactly makes that for families? That it is poorly acted and occasionally features a lamp and children playing baseball? I barely felt comfortable watching this movie, and I’m a grown-up with no dependents.
Two years ago, Stanley (Jason London) and Lisa (Meredith Salenger) lost their young son to a tragic accident. We don’t learn much about their son other than he was into baseball and is dead. “He sure could catch a ball. When he was alive.” Later, when the manner of his death is revealed, we also find out that the son never really got the hang of riding his bike without training wheels. (It’s sort of incredible. The audience knows that Stanley is torn apart by his son’s death and takes most of the responsibility for it, but late in the movie there is a flashback to what actually happened: Stanley unscrewed his son’s training wheels, pushed him down the driveway, and watched him go straight into the street to get run over by a car. Um, yeah. When you pushed your son toward the end of the driveway his first time on a proper bicycle, what did you think would happen? He would bang a uey?)
Now, racked by grief, Stanley’s life is falling apart. His editor is bugging him about his book deadline, and Stanley has not written a single word yet in “Document2.doc” in Microsoft Word. His answering machine is filled with messages from bill collectors. A great way to start to cutting down those bills would be to cancel your landline service and save yourself 30 dollars a month. Meanwhile, he barely pays attention to Lisa, a personal trainer at a local gym. She is unsettlingly less bothered by her son’s death, and it’s taking all her self-control not to bang one of her studly clients.
To raise money for the local little league team, Lisa donates some of her dead kid’s stuff to a yard sale. There she meets the woman in charge of the local orphanage, Miss Esther. The orphanage is next door to Lisa and Sam’s house in a solidly residential neighborhood, and it seems to have only four kids. It seems like a pretty nice place! Those kids should just stay there instead of looking for foster homes. Miss Esther mysteriously gives Lisa a lamp that didn’t sell. I wonder if anything will come of THE LAMP?
When Stanley finds out that Lisa sold some of their dead kid’s stuff, he loses his mind. “You can’t throw away his memories like that! How can you be so cold?” He says a lot of intense things like that. There is some blame thrown around. Then he picks up the lamp and says, “And you bring home this? What is this?” Um, her getting a free oil lamp is the least of your worries, Stanley. Your relationship with your wife is falling apart because you can’t move on from the death of your son; maybe a new lamp is exactly the spice your marriage needs? He disagrees and chucks it into the fireplace.
The end. Just kidding. Actually, just believe. That is the message Lisa finds on the side of the lamp when she rubs it clean. And no sooner does she rub it than she hears a knock at the door. It’s Charles Montgomery III (Louis Gossett Jr.) in an old-fashioned suit and bow tie. He hands her his card. It says, “Just Believe.” She says, “What are you, some kind of genie?” Mr. Montgomery laughs. “Oh dear, no. I’m real. Genies are fictitious.” Ah, I see. Case closed! Then he sneezes and the dog, Cooper, brings him a tissue. What powers this non-genie man has! He makes vague allusions to wishes. Lisa admits that she misses how their lives used to be, when they were happy.
The Lamp was made in 2011, and it strikes me as bold the way they decided to make the genie a Magical Negro. While Montgomery never makes any explicit references to God, there is a strong through-line of faith and family in this whole film, and that the Magical Negro character is a Christian genie, which is super-complicated. Meanwhile, Stanley is always talking to this mysterious white old man named Sam (who wears a mechanic’s jumpsuit monogrammed with “Sam”) who seems to know everything about Stanley’s family. Are they both genies? Is one of them God? Do they both work for God? Does Charles Montgomery work for Sam? They are both good friends with Miss Esther, the orphanage lady. Is she God? Look, all I’m asking is: Who is God?
Even though he repeatedly insists that he is not a genie (because genies have arm bands or are blue or whatever), Charles Montgomery III agrees to give Stanley three wishes so he can get back his “heartbeat” (don’t make me explain it). He’s got 30 days to use his wishes, and these are the rules: You can’t cause harm to others. You can’t bring someone back to life. And your wish can’t be something you’ve got the power to acquire on your own.
Stanley, seeing the loophole in the genie’s rules, wishes for infinite wishes and lives as the King of All Mankind forever. No, that doesn’t happen, but I wish it had. Instead, here is where the movie gets tricky. Stanley’s life starts turning around, and we quickly understand that it’s not because of wishes but because he believes, and because he had the power to acquire these things himself all along. OK. That’s a fine message. But this movie doesn’t earn it. This movie earns nothing!
Out of nowhere, he starts being nicer to the four orphan kids who live next door. The main girl, Josh, plays baseball, and he teaches her how to pitch better. Suddenly they have a friendship and his heart is open again? Until, of course, she picks up his dead son’s glove and he loses his mind. He screams at her and she runs away. Then he apologizes and gives her the glove. He also asks her what she’d do with a wish. She says she’d wish for money so that she could have a family. She’s an idiot.
Stanley is now inspired to start writing his book, titled Just Believe. I paused the movie and transcribed a chapter called “Family.” This is real:
- “Is family more valuable than money.
Can you put a value on family or any relationship? How do you put a value on any one relationship you may have? I have had the opportunity to have more love in my life than I could have ever expected. I have also lost more than I had ever thought I would. Does love die when a person dies? Does the value of that person or that love leave when a person leaves your life? These are all questions that I have recently been faced with.
I would like to think that all love or relationships will only grow in value as they mature. Time and effort on all sides of a relationship determines how fast or how strong a relationship grows.”
Um, wow. That book seems incredible! Can I actually buy it? I could use the answers to those great questions! DOES love die when a person dies? I am always asking my friends that. “Hey, Dave. Question. DOES love die when a person dies?” “Max, don’t ask ME, ask this book. It’s called Just Believe, and it’s written by Stanley. He’s one of the top authors.”
Reinvigorated by his unbelievable writing session, Stanley makes a gourmet dinner for his wife. She comes home from “training” to see him at the stove tasting things and working multiple pots. She sits down and he serves her a giant mound of dry spaghetti with a tiny ladle full of tomato sauce on top. It looks disgusting! It’s like he’s seen Italian food only in Disney cartoons. He serves it with wine and a big bowl of grapes? Tres, tres gourmet. Anyway, the meal saves their marriage.
Stanley shows up at Josh’s baseball game. For whatever reason, the whole movie Stanley has been watching the practices by himself like a pervert. (That’s where he talks to the white genie, Sam.) Stanley walks up and has exactly three words with the coach, and the coach hands him his whistle. Stanley’s the new coach! Josh is so excited. What did Stanley say to the coach that made the coach quit so quickly? “I have a gun. I will shoot you and all these kids and then myself if you don’t let me coach. Look in my eyes. I’m not afraid to die. I have nothing.”
Stanley gets a phone call at his desk and writes down “INTERVIEW STEVE FORBES.” What? Apparently, he’s got a bunch of interviews for his new book lined up, with business leaders and titans of industry. We see him sit down with the actual Steve Forbes. What a cameo! “And introducing Steve Forbes as HIMSELF.” Stanley meets with a publisher. He tells his wife, “I got the biggest advance the publishing company’s ever given out.” Whoa! That’s amazing. I mean, if I’d read just a bit of that chapter above, I’d be opening my checkbook, too. “I am going to write the number 1. You tell me when to stop writing zeros.”
Their life is perfect now, except for their dead kid. Charles comes back and asks them to list what wishes they made. Stanley and Lisa didn’t need their wishes; they’ve got everything they want, except an undead kid. Charles is satisfied. But he’s got to write. “I have quite a report to write.” You are a genie or maybe an angel! Why are you going to be BURIED in paperwork? Why don’t you wish for not having to write a report?
And in case you weren’t sure, Stanley and Lisa end up adopting Josh and her adopted/damaged sister Rachel, who is mute until she is not mute. Having a family makes her talk again. Josh and Rachel win their baseball game and learn the importance of being nice, or something. It’s almost like a whole different movie in the final 20 minutes. What’s never explained is why Stanley and Lisa didn’t adopt the other two kids in the orphanage, a black teenager and a young disabled boy. It’s sort of super-screwed up. Stanley and Lisa are all, “We’ve got one wish left. We’ll take the white girls.” I hope things worked out for those other two.
When You Should Watch This Movie: When someone kidnaps your family and threatens to kill them unless you watch EVERY Louis Gossett Jr. movie. Or when you are Jason London’s brother, Jeremy, high on crack, eager to judge your more successful sibling.