Morrie, son of a Russian immigrant who was unable to give or receive love, lost his mother early to some disease, but lucked out with his stepmother a year later. He clung to and thrived on the selfless love she bestowed on him, saving his young life so that he could go on to teach young people how to live...and in the end how to die by living.
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It is never specified in this 2000 movie (or book that I recall and I updated my review of it today as it was my very first epinion) what subject Morrie taught at Brandeis University, but I would guess Sociology or perhaps Poetry since he loved the W.H. Auden poem “September 1, 1939.”
While backing out of the campus parking lot to go home one day in the summer of 1994, spry, lovable, seventy-seven year old Morrie suddenly has Lou Gehrig’s Disease attack his legs and his car crashes into the fence behind him as his legs remain inert. The disease begins with his legs, but gradually it will travel up his body suffocating his organs until he dies. There doesn’t seem to be a cure at all.
Despite this tragedy, Morrie welcomes his former student of sixteen years ago who narrates this story and hears about his illness on television. Soon this student, Mitch Albom our author, decides to keep coming back every Tuesday (Morrie’s old office hours) and to record the wise lessons the dying man imparts.
One lesson comes in the form of a story. Forgive me for using my own creative interpretation of it, please. A little wave feels scared for her life and asks a big wave what happens to them. She is told they crash on the shore in a tumult of spray that can be quite beautiful. “But won’t we die and become nothing then?” she asks. “No,” the big wave says with a smile (can’t you just picture that?), “then you will still be part of the ocean.”
The movie opens with gray-haired Morrie, played exquisitely by Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot), as he dances with abandon in the campus nightclub and introduces the admiring students to the tango. It isn’t long, though, before the disease attacks and his former students and relatives must come to his home to enjoy his vibrant personality.
One of these former students is Mitch, engagingly played by Hank Azaria, a popular sportswriter with even television exposure (as he does in real life) in the big sports city of Detroit. Janine, the girl he’s dated for seven years, gives up on him finally, but not before she advises him to reach out to Morrie who he hears on the news is dying.
Half a realistic love story of the early twenty-first century, half a realistic portrayal of a dying man and how he changes the life of a former student, Tuesdays With Morrie has enough love to keep the average person’s heart in his throat.
If you’ve never heard of or known a person with ALS (another name for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, check out www.als.org), or even seen a beautiful soul like Morrie cope with the process of dying as an example for all of us, then you will understand after reading this. You will experience what Mitch must go through.
Since I read and reviewed the book version, I can compare it with the movie and the movie was a lot more satisfying for me. Mitch Albom didn’t write the book badly (it’s an Oprah Winfrey book and movie, after all!), but he is simply a sportswriter who writes from a man’s perspective. The movie was cowritten by him and Thomas Rickman; therefore, Janine and Morrie’s loving wife have characters that are fleshed out a bit more, in my opinion. They have become more than characters from the sidelines to fit into the story as in the book, but inspiring, charismatic presences to cherish.
The one complaint I have with the film is that Mitch’s flustered, time-demanding boss suddenly does a miraculous about face when he learns that his prize reporter has been schmaltzing on the job in order to mourn with a dying man who was once his teacher. Now it’s A-OK for Mitch to be neglecting the big sports action that must be reported.
I doubt his boss was really that understanding, especially since Mitch before visiting Morrie a few times would not have been. I’m reminded of the less-provocative Timothy Leary book, Design For Dying, that I recently reviewed. He, like Morrie, noted that people today don’t like talking about death and would rather deny it’s happening. They certainly would not honor an employee’s wish to take time off to be with a dying person not related to them!
So the message of compassion for the dying might be overhanded a little, but it’s still a well-done movie in all categories, even the right music or silence throughout. I’m not one for Oprah’s books or movies, either, but the credit has to go to her and especially Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria for bringing the book to life. Mick Jackson directed it well under 100 minutes to show us these lives in unforgettable detail. It’s time well-spent.
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