Arriving more than a decade too late in both its inspirational and foundational appeal, “The Secret: Dare to Dream,” a fictionalized adaptation of author Rhonda Byrne’s popular self-help book “The Secret,” traipses through familiar territory without enhancing anyone’s insight. This story, about a financially and emotionally taxed family learning to find light in the darkness and love in chance encounters, is a blundering attempt to hawk books while aping another famous author’s patented style. Littered with confounding clichés and hokey devices, director/co-writer Andy Tennant’s feature is the exact inverse of what a passionate romance should aspire to be, let alone one preaching the power of positivity.
Harried single mom Miranda Wells (Katie Holmes) has been stretched thin since the death of her husband a few years prior. Between work shifts at a fish market in New Orleans, she tends to her rapidly-decaying home and makes sure her three kids — Missy (Sarah Hoffmeister), Greg (Aidan Pierce Brennan) and Bess (Chloe Lee) — are as happy as they can be considering their unraveling finances. There’s barely any time or money left for her own needs, no matter how necessary a root canal may be. Everything, including relationships with her caring boss-cum-boyfriend Tucker (Jerry O’Connell) and concerned mother-in-law Bobby (Celia Weston), is in a state of disrepair. And with a major hurricane on the way, things aren’t looking good.
Cue engineering professor Bray Johnson (Josh Lucas). This handsome, impossibly lucky bachelor blows into town on the Bayou breeze, offering Miranda assistance with her pressing problems and toting a mysterious manila envelope sealed with wax to emphasize its importance to the audience. Maddeningly, he hides the envelope rather than simply handing it over. He fixes her busted bumper after their fender-bending meetcute, and things escalate to him proselytizing over pizza. Bray’s welcome presence morphs into a godsend when a tree branch crashes into their kitchen, making the home uninhabitable. Spending a week helping the Wells family is no trouble given he’s harboring an actual secret — and a rationally explained one at that.
Though the book itself is conveniently never mentioned in the movie (most likely so audiences aren’t reminded they’re watching a celebrity-driven infomercial), its platitudes drop into dialogue as subtly as an anvil, from the basic laws of attraction to the more esoteric beliefs. Yet Tennant, along with co-writers Bekah Brunstetter and Rick Parks, fails to show these principal applications in action in the characters’ lives. Vision boards and psychological conjuring are replaced by instant gratification: Miranda doesn’t know what she wants out of life, but the exact moment she decides, her requests are granted. Missy yearns for a flashy 16th birthday party, but learns a new value system and within seconds changes her mind. If only all teens could be like this. Greg longs for a father figure and Bray just materializes. Bess begs for a pony and the inevitable occurs. Using “The Secret” to get ponies is a bastardization of its uplifting message.
Beyond the poor translation of the book’s methods and sentiments, the filmmakers have crafted an astoundingly generic, asexual romance. Leads Holmes and Lucas attempt to start a fire with the sparks from their playful chemistry, but are saddled with soggy wood to ignite. The material lacks the burning desire, tenderness and camp of Nicholas Sparks’ cinematic adaptations, which this clearly seeks to emulate. It’s only made worse when the denouement, propelled by a swelling score and swirling camerawork, takes place in a Waffle House parking lot. There’s no dressing that up.
Nevertheless, it’s not a total wash. The characters’ trials and travails, while thoroughly predictable, move along at a decent pace. The first half holds a few invigorating ingredients, especially in its treatment of male characters. Tucker and Bray are both supportive, sensitive guys, not macho caricatures, puffing up their chests to fight over Miranda. At least, not until the second half. Using the home’s remodeling process to mirror the Wells’ psyches is nuanced symbolism in a film practically bereft of subtlety. The taffy motif — a frequently mentioned addiction of Miranda’s — reflects the sticky situations in which the family is currently caught.
Other best-selling nonfiction instruction manuals turned movies, like “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and “Think Like a Man,” have blended their betterment techniques with entertaining, engaging scenarios and pathos. So it’s baffling — and maybe ironic — that this one, containing some actually helpful, healthy teachings, finds multiple problems when plugged into a genre that loves to see dreams come true.