Homelessness is a complex problem encompassing systemic injustice, mental illness, unemployment, and numerous other causes. Unsurprisingly, cinematic portrayals of homelessness tend to be over-simplified and problematic. Two exceptions to this that I’ve seen are Leave No Trace and Lean on Pete (both available on Amazon Prime). Leave No Trace follows a war vet with PTSD who raises his daughter in the forest until they are discovered. The movie highlights the conflict between the daughter who slowly realizes she is homeless and yearns to enter society–and her father who’s too traumatized to re-adjust. Leave No Trace was written & directed by Debra Gopnik, whose numerous impactful movies highlight the marginalized.
Inversely, Lean on Pete highlights the thin line between “just getting by” and descending into homelessness. The movie follows a teenage boy after his dad (and sole parent) dies. The boy works at a stable, before stealing the horse and starting a journey to find his aunt that depletes his resources and renders him homeless. The movie can skew melodramatic, but my friend confirmed that poor teenagers often hang out at equestrian race tracks. Both of these movies excel because they have a tight focus, humanize their characters, avoid trivialization & quick fixes, and don’t add the race card.
The worst movies on homelessness are rendered more problematic by issues of race. The Pursuit of Happyness sends the message that homelessness can be easily overcome by hard work, ignoring systemic injustices that create the problem. Same Kind of Different as Me avoids this misstep, instead portraying a black man saved from homelessness by a rich white couple. This movie loudly fails in its attempt to “white savior” the problem of homelessness, showing a complete misunderstanding of poverty aid (promoting handouts over skill development), racism (presenting it as an issue of the distant pass), and marital infidelity. Just read this post in the Guardian and close my blog. If you do read on, I won’t bury the lead. Same Kind of Different as Me is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen and a Kinnear Jeer.
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
The movie is Michael Carney’s lone directing credit, and I’d be shocked if he gets another chance. It’s based on a true story, but I will use actor names in hopes that the true story is better. Greg Kinnear (as Ron Hall) is a wealthy Texas art dealer, married to Renée Zellweger (as Debbie Hall) with two teenage kids. Greg tells Renée he’s been having an affair and the two argue about it in one of the worst-filmed scenes ever. It jarringly cuts between them arguing and standing in frustrated silence. Renée goes to bed, but wakes up after dreaming about a mysterious black homeless man. She then asks Greg for his mistress’s phone number and calls her. Renée tells the mistress she forgives her and if she can repair her marriage then Greg won’t be calling again. It’s jarringly stupid/unrealistic.
Renée offers Greg a second chance, but only if he helps serve in a soup kitchen. She’s been serving there for some time, but for unclear reasons kept it a secret from Greg. Basically, their marriage is built on secrets varying wildly in magnitude. Greg is at first reluctant to serve in the soup kitchen, worried about catching ‘infectious diseases.’ Then the homeless man of Renée’s dream enters. He’s nicknamed Suicide and starts smashing glass windows with a baseball bat. Forever naive, Renée insists that Greg serves him food and befriend him.
Djimon Hounsou (aka Suicide aka Denver Moore) resists Greg’s service. But Greg keeps trying (mainly to save his marriage) and eventually treats Djimon to dinner. This ‘breaks the ice’ and Greg befriends Djimon by taking him to more events like a museum outing and his daughter’s tennis match. Djimon shares about his past–how his caretaker died in a fire and he was forced to work on plantations. The details and filming of these flashbacks seem like they come from the civil war era. But this story takes place in the late 90s so this timeline clearly doesn’t work. If anything, these scenes highlight the inability of the movie’s crew to accurately depict post-civil-war-era racism.
Further compounding the racist tones of the movie, there is a side story where Jon Voight plays Greg’s racist, unloving father (not unlike how Voight currently portrays himself irl). In a series of scenes, he judges Greg & Renée’s desire to help a dangerous black man and makes fun of Renée’s cancer. Oh yeah, she gets cancer. Sorry for that spoiler. Anyways. At the end of the movie, Djimon urges Greg to reconcile with his dad under the false narrative that since Greg is good his dad must be too. Let me be clear: children often end up healthy/good due to the mentorship of others despite dysfunctional upbringings. Back to what’s left of the story.
Greg & Renée don’t so much help Djimon improve his lot in life, as much as they keep giving him handouts. They let him sleep in their mansion for a night, too. Then Renée gets terminal cancer. As she’s dying, she tells her children to support their father if he gets remarried. She offers her blessing to Greg if he chooses to marry his mistress. (There are no words for how dumb this scene is). Right before she dies, Greg and Djimon share a dance with Renée at the soup kitchen under strung-up lights. Djimon gives a speech at Renée’s funeral with the message that we are all homeless on a journey to eternal paradise with God. In fact, we’re all the “Same Kind of Different as Me.” This speech served to (A) trivialize homelessness, (B) normalize the disparity between excessive wealth and poverty, and (C) put a pretty bow on the movie’s “white savior” narrative.
In sum, words don’t do justice to how bad this movie is. The lone redeeming quality could have been Renée Zellweger’s compassionate heart for the poor. Yet her character is undone by how naive and dismissive she is within her marriage. A trusted friend loved the book that precluded the movie. So I do believe the real-life friendship between Ron Hall and Denver Moore extended beyond handouts and produced substantial poverty relief to numerous others as described in the movie’s credits. Another cool thing is that, instead of building an artificial set, the crew upgraded an actual soup kitchen in Jackson, Mississipi to expand its reach after filming wrapped.
Greg’s other performance with Renée (Nurse Betty) is Premier Kinnear, so it’s dispiriting that his performance here is a Kinnear Jeer. Before writing about Greg’s performance I want to show you two clips:
The best part of press interviews for Same Kind of Different as Me, is the delightful story Greg frequently told about having his most unprofessional moment ever…on the set of Nurse Betty. Greg shows more enthusiasm here and in the behind-the-scenes clip below than he did anywhere in Same Kind of Different as Me.
That clip clarifies that Greg was chosen because he looks like Ron Hall, has brilliant acting timing, and is fun on set. (I’d also speculate that Greg signed on for Same Kind of Different as Me because of the box-office success of Heaven is for Real. The books behind both movies were co-written by Lynn Vincent). Unfortunately, these ‘fun factors’ did not translate to the film. Greg goes through the majority of the movie with a blank stare, devoid of almost any reaction to the various events going on around him. He sleepwalks through the movie.
When Greg’s infidelity comes to light, he simply sits in a chair with his head down. When Djimon tells of his difficult upbringing, Greg talks casually about museum art. Even when Greg cracks a smile, his energy is but a small fraction of the typical energetic Greg. Early in the movie, a client cracks a joke and Greg can barely be bothered. Later–after defending Djimon in a a country club bathroom–Greg minimally reciprocates Djimon’s appreciation. It felt like Greg’s performance wasn’t subdued, so much as apathetic.
There isn’t much else to say. Greg & Renée have decent chemistry together, but it’s ruined by the story. There’s no rationale for why they should save their marriage, it’s unclear how they save their marriage, and Greg has few admirable character traits when considered in isolation from Renée’s compassionate nature.
Why bother? The Kinnear Meter says it all:
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