Film review: Tuesdays with Morrie (1999), directed by Mick Jackson
Mitch Albom (Hank Azaria) is a newspaper sports columnist who happens to see his old college professor, Morrie Schwartz (Jack Lemmon) on TV one day. Mitch had promised they’d keep in touch, but 16 years have passed without him ever doing so. According to the TV programme, Morrie is dying from what’s called Lou Gehrig’s disease in the US and motor neuron disease in the UK (or ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and Mitch realises now’s the time to get in touch, before it’s too late.
Morrie, a man larger than life, remembers his old student and is happy to see him again, even though it’s been such a long time. Morrie has learned a lot in his 78-year life, and wants to pass this knowledge on. Mitch decides to tape their sessions. What follows is part re-kindling of an old friendship, part decline into a debilitating disease, and part heartwarming life lessons.
Also starring Wendy Moniz as Janine, Caroline Aaron as Connie, Bonnie Bartlett as Charlotte and John Carroll Lynch as Walter.
When I said “part heartwarming life lessons” above, I really ought to have said “mostly”. It’s a very sweet film about friendship and love but the problem is that while those things are beautiful to talk about, it can get a little too much. And it does.
It turns a little too saccharine. It’s a fine film with great acting performances – both Lemmon and Azaria won Emmys – but it goes from being heartwarming and life-affirming to trying too damn hard to be profound. And as that is most of the film, it gets a little tedious. To grab a few examples from the Memorable Quotes section on IMDb:
“When you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.”
The film is at least an hour’s worth of those kind of profound sayings. Yes, those sayings are wonderful and ring true, and we could definitely do with heeding them. However, because the advice comes so thick and fast, all you end up with is not seeing the forest for the trees. If everything that’s spoken is valuable life advice, you can’t keep up or take it on board, because it becomes too overwhelming.
Maybe the book on which this is based is an easier medium to digest than a film, no matter how beautiful the performances are. There’s simply no time to let the messages sink in, it’s wisdom after wisdom after wisdom. Wise, profound, incredible and touching … but as a film, it’s trying too hard. It adds up to being too sweet, too preachy about the value of love and life, and instead of feeling genuine, it feels staged. “Today, I teach living as if each day was your last! Tomorrow: walking on water!”
That being said, it would do a lot of people a lot of good to see Tuesdays with Morrie, because sometimes you just need to stop for a while and smell the flowers. It’s a beautiful film. My problem is that it’s trying to be too beautiful, which there isn’t enough time to get away with.
4 out of 5 cherry blossoms, and you’d better have some tissues at the ready.
(Update August 2021: ALS/MND is a devastating disease. I don’t remember how much the film went into describing it, but the research to find a cure is seriously underfunded. Not much at all has happened to improve the outcome for patients since Lou Gehrig died in 1941, and it’s still a fatal diagnosis. Life expectancy is only 2-5 years. Please consider donating to one of the following organisations:
To find out what it’s like to have a family member diagnosed with ALS/MND, see the Pat Quinn Sr episode of Dom’s Den Podcast.)