Faith & Pop Culture: Wrecked by Pride

Last weekend I watched a pair of movies that do not (at least on the surface) have any thematic similarities. The first was The Judge - an emotional drama about a big shot attorney returning home for his mother's funeral then staying to defend his father against murder charges. The second was Chef - an indie comedy about a popular chef and his culinary journey of food and family.

Admittedly, the second film served as a counter balance to the first upon the suggestion of a friend. The Judge turned me into a puddle and I needed something funny to cheer me up. Chef was the perfect remedy.

Legal battles and Cuban cuisine. A tear-jerker and a witty satire. Nothing in common. Well, maybe something. Both movies show the devastating fallout from pride. Different stories, different methods, same result. Pride wrecks lives.

The two main protagonists in The Judge display divergent faces of pride. Robert Downey Jr. plays the attorney Hank Palmer returning to his home town to mourn his mother's death. Hank's father (Robert Duvall) is a notoriously strict judge and one of the most respected legal figures in Indiana. On the evening following the funeral there is a fatal accident and the judge faces charges of first degree murder while Hank stays in town to help his father in court.

For Judge Palmer, pride manifests itself under noble intentions. He is a man who would rather go to prison than have his case history called into question. He is a man who found the reckless behaviors from his son's past to be an embarrassment. He wishes to see the flags flying at half staff in the event of his death. His desire is to leave a worthy legacy.

This pride prevents him from admitting weakness. The Judge is facing terminal cancer - a secret he's kept by getting chemo treatments at a private lakeside cabin rather than a medical facility. He refuses to admit that the side effects of his cancer treatment have caused him to black out and lose memories. It is because of his pride he seeks out an inexperienced attorney instead of asking his son to represent him.

Hank's pride is more apparent and is displayed through overt arrogance. He flaunts his wealth, success, charisma, and expertise. He doesn't hesitate to humiliate or seduce others depending on his mood. Yet he shows cracks: he has an unforgiving relationship with his father, both of his brothers feel abandoned by him, and his marriage is on the verge of divorce.

In Chef, Jon Favreau is Carl Casper, the talented and famous chef at a popular restaurant in LA. For him, pride is demonstrated with a singular obsession with his craft. He views himself as culinary master, angered by his boss (Dustin Hoffman) the restaurant owner who won't let him try innovative recipes.

Because of the pride in his skills, he resists his ex-wife's suggestion to open a food truck and work for himself. Pride strains his relationship with his 10 year old son and his friendships with his kitchen staff. He pridefully insists that he is happy with his job even when it is obvious to everyone around him that he is miserable.

When studying the bible I have read much about pride, and none of it is positive - especially in Proverbs. Proverbs says that arrogance will be punished. It says that destruction and disgrace follows pride. Even the book of Isaiah says that great people will be brought down and the proud will be humbled, a truth we see in The Judge and Chef. The no-nonsense judge, the flashy lawyer, and the culinary genius. Each of them brought down. Each of them disgraced, punished, or destroyed.

Pictures courtesy of Village Roadshow/Warner Bros. Pictures and Open Road Films

The first humbling moment for Judge Palmer comes in a heartbreaking scene where his disease causes him to collapse in the bathroom. His son comes to help him through nausea, vomiting, and complete loss of bowel control. Despite their contentious relationship, Hank helps his dad through the humiliation and into the shower to clean up. Judge is further humbled as he is forced to admit the truth of his illness and failing memory in court as he’s providing testimony. He is humbled even more as he hears his guilty verdict. His disgrace was an attack on his legacy.

Hank Palmer’s humbling moments were not outright embarrassing, but direct statements from various relationships in his life. His dad’s doctor tells him, “You really aren't a pleasant person.” When his daughter asks why he and his wife are divorcing, she tells him, “Daddy’s don’t get lonely. They only marry younger mommies.” When trying to reconnect with his old high school sweetheart, she tells him the truth, “You’re just a boy from Indiana who’s gonna do whatever he has to do to pretend he’s not.” She also tells Hank that he’s selfish and a bully. In an argument with his older brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) voices hurt and bitterness that he’s the responsible brother who stayed home and would be the one to provide care to their mentally handicapped younger brother after both parents had passed; he makes the accusation that Hank would run back to his lavish lifestyle and forget about them. And finally, in court, Judge Palmer says that his biggest professional mistake was going easy on a criminal’s sentencing because the criminal reminded Judge of Hank. Each statement punished his arrogance and revealed him to be a smaller man than the image he projects.

In Chef, Carl Casper’s humbling is a downward spiral that begins when his boss won’t allow him to control the restaurant’s menu and they receive a bad review from a famous food blogger. He is humbled again when he accidently posts a public tweet that he thought was a private message to the blogger. It gets worse when his boss still refuses to grant him creative control over the menu; he quits but none of his kitchen staff friends leave with him. He returns to the restaurant later that night to confront the blogger where Casper unleashes a massive rant that is caught on camera and uploaded to Youtube. This video goes viral and Casper finds himself unemployed and unable to find any restaurant willing to hire him. His final humbling moment happens when he has to lower himself to ask his ex-wife’s ex-husband for a favor. Chef Casper found pride in his work, and his work was destroyed.

If pride wrecks lives, then the inverse is true. Humility restores life. Hank Palmer petitions for compassionate parole for his imprisoned father. He returns home and accepts his roots – even to the point of shouting “I’m from here” while standing in the middle of the street. He is not perfect, but he is healing. Chef Casper also finds healing in humility. His new venture turns into a massive success, he reconnects with his son, and his relationship with his ex-wife is restored.

From tears and laughter, these two films reminded me of the advice of Philippians chapter two. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

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