OK, it’s a dumb movie, the storyline is not particularly compelling or interesting to follow, and as a comedy it’s never more than minimally funny.
But somehow after it was over, I found myself musing in a somewhat favorable way about the central phenomenon or whimsical institution/practice of the movie.
The film is about fictitious “existential detectives” (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) and their clients. The detectives consult with a person, follow them around and observe every aspect of their life for a time, and do additional research to help them find the meaning in their life and interpret whatever strange things or coincidences they experience.
In reviews, I see the movie being routinely described as having a “philosophical” subject matter, as depicting these folks and their clients as engaged in “philosophy.”
Well, sort of. But really it’s a lot more what laymen think philosophy is than what it really is, say in academia.
That is, I think most people who’ve never studied philosophy assume it has to do with adopting a “philosophy of life.” I’m not sure what they picture happening in a philosophy class–perhaps a sort of group therapy thing where people articulate the general principles they’ve chosen as most emotionally pleasing and therapeutic to believe (“everything happens for a reason,” “there’s a benevolent God governing the universe who will make sure everything turns out for the best in the end,” “everyone and everything is connected in some metaphysical sense,” whatever), and others have the chance to try them on for size until they find one that feels good to them.
Anyway, it got me thinking what it might be like to have a kind of multi-disciplinary approach to, I don’t know, psychology or whatever you want to call it. For the most part it’s not something I see as realistic or would want to try to establish; it’s more just something fun to speculate about, that at most might bear some loose resemblance to some innovative thing that genuinely would be worthwhile.
So first you have your conventional psychiatry/psychology/therapy thing, where you explore inside the person and examine how they think, what their values are, how they cope with problems, how they experience their life. But then you augment their subjective account of their experiences, with a thorough, objective examination of their life based on external observations. (I’m picturing something like the way Dr. House and his “team” not only quiz the patient, but will go to the person’s home to investigate the environment for themselves to see what they might find that the person is unaware of or lying about.)
Then in addition you’re bringing to bear whatever are the most rationally justified findings of moral philosophy or metaphysics or whatever, as they pertain to life in general or this person’s life in particular, to provide a deeper context for it all.
So it’s somewhat less solipsistic than just assisting a person to better understand themselves and their beliefs and values. It’s doing that, but also being willing to question and examine the accuracy and justifiability of those beliefs and values.
More like a team of psychiatrists, philosophers, clergy, private investigators, and who knows who else, seeking to understand a life from inside and outside, and to put it in some meaningful context.
Reading back over the last few paragraphs, I only have the vaguest idea what I myself have in mind, so it would be understandable if a reader had no clue at all.
But kind of like in the movie, minus some of the New Age or supernatural stuff.
I guess what I’m thinking is people should be examining their lives like that already, but to the extent they do, it seems to be very compartmentalized. So for some of the “big questions” about yourself and about life, you might go to a psychiatrist, for some you might take a philosophy class, for some you might go to church, for some you might read some other kind of book or consult with some other kind of expert, etc. And I’m wondering what it might look like if somehow all these things were combined, if there were some entity, some team of people, whose function it was to assist a person in seeking meaning in all these ways simultaneously and interrelatedly.
If that makes any sense. Which, again, I acknowledge it probably doesn’t.
Other than setting off some interesting speculations in me that probably don’t go anywhere, there just isn’t much positive I can say about this movie. It’s not terrible; I just didn’t care more than minimally about any of the characters or the plot, and I didn’t find it more than infrequently mildly amusing.
I guess as far as that goes, maybe I would have liked it more if it hadn’t played most of its topics for laughs. There’s some potential here for an interesting serious movie about some speculative, innovative kind of therapy, or even the co-opting of environmental groups by corporations and the Establishment (which is the main thing troubling these folks seeking assistance from the “existential detectives”), but that’s not the direction the filmmaker chose.