Monday, September 15, 2008

Jacob: Con Man…and Movie Star?

Next month, at my church, we'll be studying the life of one of Scripture’s greatest con men (topped only by perhaps Lucifer himself), Jacob the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham. When you read this guy’s story, he’s running one scam after another. We see Jacob in Genesis 27 disguise himself as his brother to get his father’s blessing. We see Jacob in Genesis 30 pull a con to get Laban’s sheep and goats (perhaps with God’s assistance). Jacob keeps it up even after Laban pulls a scam on Jacob (the old bride switch). It is not until God literally picks a fight with Jacob (Genesis 32) that he finally turns his life around.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that there’s something appealing about a clever con executed well. We’re amused by the scams of Jacob, so it’s not surprising that so many films have been made about con men (and women) and their games.
The most honored film of the Con Genre would probably be The Sting, winner of 7 Academy Awards including 1973’s Best Picture Oscar. The film is great fun. If you haven’t seen it, avoid hearing anything about the plot’s twists and turns before you do. The film deservedly won Oscars for art design, costumes and music for masterfully creating a prettified Depression wherein con men are the heroes. The film is worth watching to see Robert Redford and Paul Newman, perhaps the most charming duo in film history. (Newman, at the time of this writing, is not expected to live much longer; all the more reason to seek out the work of this wonderful actor.)
But the con truly is a game. Deception is one of the tools of the game, and the expert practice of it is not considered a moral flaw but rather a cherished skill. Many other films, including The Music Man and Ocean’s 11 (old and new),
portray con men as smart, charming and deep down good guys.
Some other films take the lies and deception of the con more seriously. Writer/director David Mamet’s House of Games takes us into the world of con men as we follow a psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) who enters the world of confidence men to aid one of her patients. The men of this world are not good guys. They prey not only on the greed and hubris of their victims, but also on their generosity and fears. These are not good men. But we are still fascinated by how they pull off their crimes. (Other films that take on the dark side of the confidence game would include The Spanish Prisoner and The Grifters. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a comedy, but you never would mistake the con men in the film for good guys.)
Perhaps the film con man who is most like Jacob is found in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. The film is a fictionalized autobiography of Frank William Abagnale, Jr. (played by Leo DiCaprio), a young man who passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer and an airline pilot before he got out of his teens. With a variety of scams, including the passing of bad checks, he made millions of dollars before he was apprehended and sent to prison.
There is another interesting similarity between Abagnale as portrayed in the film and Jacob in Scripture. They both have life-changing father issues. Jacob had to fool his father into giving him the blessing, because Isaac clearly prefered Esau, his more macho son. After leaving home, Jacob seeks out a father figure in his uncle Laban. But Laban betrays him and becomes an enemy.
In the film (and in real life), Frank Jr.’s father, Frank Sr. (played by Christopher Walken) is caught committing fraud by the IRS, causing the family to move out of their grand country house to a small apartment in the city. When Frank Sr. divorces his wife, a distraught Frank Jr. leaves home and begins his life of fraud. He also seems to be searching for a father figure. And quite amazingly, he finds one in the FBI agent who pursues him, Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks).
After Frank Jr. was arrested and served time in prison, Hanratty offered Frank an opportunity to work for the FBI in a special unit combatting fraud. Ever since that time, Abagnale, the real Abagnale, has worked dilligently to help individuals and businesses protect themselves from the kind of fraud he had perpetrated so ably.
Jacob also did not change until he finally confronted and was brought to account for his deeds by a father figure: his true Father in Heaven.
Many of us spend our lives looking for self worth and esteem that we didn’t get from our parents. We are willing to lie, cheat and steal to get money, sex and respect that we think will make us feel worthwhile. All of us need to discover that our real value can be found in our Heavenly Father, as Jacob finally discovered.

(The Sting [1973]– rated PG for language, violence and sexual situations
The Music Man [1962] - not rated
Ocean’s 11 [1960] – not rated
Ocean’s 11 [2001] – PG-13 for language and violence
House of Games [1987] – rated R for language, violence and sexual situations
The Spanish Prisoner [1997] – rated PG for language and violence
The Grifters [1990] – rated R for language, violence, sexual situations and nudity
Dirty, Rotten Scondrels [1988] – rated PG for language and sexual situations
Catch Me If You Can [2002] - rated PG-13 for language and sexual situations)

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