‘The Secret: Dare To Dream’ Is A Peculiarly American Snake Oil Rom-Com Laced With Prosperity Doctrine Drivel

This week brings us the online release of The Secret: Dare To Dream, a romantic comedy adaptation of Australian television producer Rhonda Byrne’s famous 2006 self-help book The Secret. Which, thanks partly to Oprah, helped spawn a kind of self-actualization cult that still survives to this day. Vision boards, manifesting your dreams; someone you know is probably into it.

From what I can glean about the book, which was itself adapted from a documentary Byrne produced, inspired partly by Wallace D. Wattle‘s 1910 book, The Science of Getting Rich, the gist of The Secret‘s thesis is “think positively and good things will happen,” a philosophy it calls the “law of attraction.”

Now there’s a rom-com version, sadly not titled “Magnets: How Do They Work?”. Starring the random shuffle dream team of Katie Holmes (ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise), Josh Lucas (the voice of Home Depot), and Jerry O’Connell (the current Mr. Rebecca Romjin), with direction from Andy Tennant (Hitch, Sweet Home Alabama) and a script adapted by Bekah Brunstatter (This Is Us), Dare To Dream delivers The Secret‘s philosophy in classic Nicholas Sparks movie format, complete with deferred scholarships, single mothers finding love, and copious Spanish moss.

Holmes, constantly doing the weird side-faced smile that got her through Dawson’s Creek, plays Miranda Wells, a widowed mother of three to whom bad things just keep happening (presumably because she’s such a gloomy grumbleguss). On top of her dead husband leaving her to raise three wiener kids, she needs a root canal she can’t afford, has a hole in her kitchen ceiling from a tree branch, and a beat-up minivan that needs a new bumper. She lives in gorgeous coastal Louisiana (seriously, Spanish moss is like crack for the directors of pseudo-religious schmaltz), where she works as some kind of vaguely defined fishmonger with strong feelings about softshell crabs. For unstated reasons, she’s too proud to let her boss, played by Jerry O’Connell, pay for anything, even though he wants to, even though he’s also her boyfriend. This man is named, improbably, “Tuck Middendorf.”

One day a gratingly sunny stranger with obnoxiously good posture hoves into Miranda’s life. That’s Bray, played by Josh Lucas (muthafuckas act like they forgot about Bray), who secretly has traveled all the way from Nashville to deliver Miranda a manila envelope, unbeknownst to her even after she rear-ends him with her car (it’s like they’ve been… brought together… by some kind of… attraction). He quickly becomes her unhired handyman, fixing her bumper and roof while delivering choice nuggets of wisdom to her grateful children, such as “nature can be very powerful but so are you,” and “coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

He is, essentially, a Magical Negro, rendered here in a Josh Lucasite shade of Caucasian. He’s even a professor of engineering at Vanderbilt, a great Magical White Bro job. We know basically from the jump that Bray’s secret Macguffin envelope will inevitably contain the solution to all of Miranda’s problems (will it just be a fax that says “DUMP TUCK MIDDENDORF?”) but it’s almost as if he has to wait until she puts on a sufficiently happy face before she can be worthy of receiving good news. What kind of freak can solve a suffering woman’s money problems with a single stroke but refuses to do so? This philosophy isn’t just bad, it’s weird.

The first night Bray meets the Wells children, Miranda is busy ruining their dinner of microwaved chicken tenders (a clumsy dolt! the perfect relatable rom-com heroine!) while the children loudly fantasize about pizza. This is when Bray delivers his first soliloquy comparing mental desires to physical magnetism and assuring the children that they can have everything they want if they can only imagine it. The children all speak aloud the type of pizza they want, and ta da! Seconds later the doorbell rings, revealing a pizza delivery guy with a couple hot pies even though a hurricane is about to hit.

It’s a staggeringly idiotic scene. But here’s the part where I admit that I don’t think everything The Secret preaches is entirely bankrupt. At one point, Josh Lucas tells his hotel clerk “How can you achieve your goal if you can’t see it?”

If you strip away the unsolicited nature of this advice and pedantic delivery (it must be said that this film doesn’t seem to understand what a smug asshole this Bray guy is), there’s a kernel of genuine if obvious wisdom there: the first step towards achieving your goals is identifying what those goals are. Being clear about what you want isn’t crazy advice.

Of course, because we are a nation of idiot children, it’s not sufficient to offer this reasonable advice, as one adult would to another. We have to convince people that they can literally manifest fresh hot pizzas with their mind. This is a close cousin to the kind of prosperity doctrine peddled by overscrubbed pastors at nü-Christian megachurches everywhere. It’s not enough to promise everlasting life in a forever utopia to all those who do unto others and whatnot, this is America, baby. We need that good shit tomorrow. Strike that, right now. Not only will you go to heaven, you might even get a Lamborghini. It’s the gentle reassurance of religion meets capitalism’s relentless drive towards instant gratification.

As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in 1972, as the nation was preparing to re-elect Richard Nixon, “This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”

I think about that quote a lot lately, for obvious reasons, and it rattled around in my head more than a few times while I was watching The Secret: Dare To Dream, a movie whose relevant insights are constantly undercut by mind pizza. It’s like we’re so accustomed to constant grifting that we can’t even recognize good advice unless it’s delivered in the form of a wild-eyed huckster making outrageous claims. “Visualize my goals and achieve them, that’s sounds pretty goo–” “Also you get a Range Rover and a hot sweater husband with a big watch!”

Anyway, just shut up your brain and listen to your wise uncle Josh Lucas. He’s a professor at Vanderbilt, for God’s sake, and have you seen this man’s posture? If you can stop being such a nattering nabob of negativity for a while you just might find yourself dumping your shitty boyfriend, going back to school, and living in a gorgeous mansion with a wrap-around porch outside Nashville. With Spanish moss as far as the eye can see and a soft-shell crab in every pot.

‘The Secret: Dare To Dream’ opens on premium video On-Demand July 31st, from Lionsgate films. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.