At age 82, Mitch Albom's former rabbi Albert Lewis wants the famous Detroit sportswriter to give his eulogy when the time comes. Albom makes a visit to his former home town in New Jersey, where Rabbi Lewis has served a congregation for about 50 years. Albom doesn't feel worthy, especially since he is no longer a practicing Jew and, in fact, he has married a Christian (who apparently isn't active either). Nevertheless, Rabbi Lewis says he is the one to do the job, and over the next eight years, Albom makes several visits back home and even attends some Sabbath services, where the good rabbi is determined to continue working and inspiring his flock even as his health declines.
In flashbacks, Henry is a young boy with six brothers and sisters in Brooklyn in the early 60s. He witnesses his mother shoot his father (we don't actually see what happens, but we hear the shot and see the mother carrying the gun). In jail, Henry's mom tells him to continue going to church and to one day become a minister. Henry's dad, who is at home recovering, has the greater influence on his son. He has spent his whole life hustling, meaning making his living on the wrong side of the law, and not apologizing for it. Now he describes himself as "a cripple". We don't see what happens from there, but many years later, Henry too is hustling to get by.
After time in prison, Henry gets out and works as an exterminator, but it is not enough for him and his wife, especially when the wife becomes pregnant. So he turns to illegal activities, with Donnie acting as his supplier. He is selling these white bricks, the nature of which we are not told, but with his friends one night, he realizes they smoked all his stuff, and Donnie won't be happy when he doesn't get his money. So Henry has to turn to robbing people.
Eventually, Henry realizes he will die without divine intervention. He pleads with God to rescue him, and if He does, Henry will serve Him.
One day Albom discovers the I Am My Brother's Keeper, in what used to be the largest Presbyterian church not only in Detroit but also the entire Midwest. The church is falling apart, but Henry, the pastor, and the members are happy and determined to keep moving forward despite all their obstacles. Albom sees an inspiring story that he can tell his readers, and an opportunity to move forward in his faith journey.
I fully expect Martin Landau as the rabbi and especially Laurence Fishburne as Henry to be nominated for some sort of award. There won't be room for both at Emmy time, I'm sure, but one of them has to be nominated. Rabbi Lewis is not only funny and friendly but an inspirational leader who is determined to make Albom see what he is capable of. And Fishburne shows us a wide range. He is quite convincing when preaching sermons at his church, and yet he is good at being bad.
Bradley Whitford doesn't make me forget he is Bradley Whitford, but that's because I know him from several roles. He is quite good as Albom, though.
Another standout performer is Anthony Castelow as Cass, a leader in the Detroit church who has a disability but doesn't let that stop him.
For the most part, this is a family-friendly movie like other Hallmark Hall of Fame productions. But I question the decision to show so much of Henry's life before he found redemption. It is helpful to his ministry that he knows the life so many who turn to him have led. But did we really need to see so much detail? It is finally mentioned that he sold drugs, and crack cocaine is also mentioned, although it is never stated what he is doing when the "product" is on screen. I can't honestly recommend the whole movie to younger kids.
But the inspiring story does make the whole movie worthwhile.
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