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Mass Appeal
1984 - PG - 99 Mins.
Director: Glenn Jordan
Producer: David Foster, Joan B. Kroc, Lawrence Turman
Written By: Bill C. Davis
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Zeljko Ivanek, Charles Durning, Louise Latham
Review by: Jake Cremins
Why was 'Mass Appeal' made? I'm serious. Here is a film which starts off with intriguing debates about the role of the Catholic Church in modern life, and then spends the rest of its time trying to avoid its issues as painlessly as possible. If it was only intended to be an entertainment, with its sitcom-style one-liners and Jack Lemmon in the lead, then why bring up issues like whether women should become priests, and whether homosexuality should get you kicked out of the seminary? If it was intended to be a serious examination of these themes, why does it lose its courage and cop out in a flurry of uplifting endings?

I've found that this movie is pretty much impossible to write about without mentioning nearly everything that happens in it from beginning to end, so consider this a warning. Believe me when I say, though, that there's nothing much worth seeing near the end anyway, and that it would be more of a crime to spoil the beginning. I'll try not to reveal too many of the early scenes, honest.

Lemmon is Father Farley, a priest well liked by his parishoners (and no wonder--he conducts his sermons like he's hosting "The Tonight Show"). The film opens with a "dialogue sermon" about whether women should become priests, and to Farley's dismay a brash young man raises his hand and not only says that they should, but provides several detailed Biblical examples to support his views. Caught unawares, Farley is both embarrassed and impressed, especially when he finds that the young man is Mark Dolson (Zeljko Ivanek), the independent-minded horror of the seminary, studying to be a priest himself.

Inevitably, Farley finds himself forced by the screenplay to take Mark into his parish as he takes the final step to priesthood, and their personalities clash. Several fascinating issues come up in their conversation. For example, Mark's idea of a good sermon is one that tells the truth, no matter how harsh or off-putting, while Farley's is of one that has his parishoners asking for autographs afterwards. When they fight over the wording of Mark's first sermon, what they're fighting over is the very function of the Church itself: should it be a source of moral guidance at the cost of all else, or source of comfort at the cost of all else?

I find this kind of stuff interesting to watch. Lemmon and Ivanek are well matched, two strong actors playing characters in opposition, both of whom are intelligent and opinionated. They discuss things that have a real bearing on normal human life, and their relationship might have resulted in a great film if it had been allowed to continue uninterrupted. But interrupted it is, by a series of tired and unnecessary plot complications that we've seen in hundreds of films already (and, I fear, will see hundreds of times more). 'Mass Appeal' may start by examining how it is possible to live within the doctrines of the Church, but by the end the ultimate message seems to be "opposites don't get along together, until eventually they do."

Then again, there's nothing much wrong with that, either. With these game actors in front of the camera, even another wheezy Generation Gap/Personality Clash/Opposites Attract script could have been entertaining. What's weird, then, is how many thorny issues are introduced into the story and then allowed to idle on the sidelines. For instance, Mark is forced to move in with Father Farley because he has loudly protested about two of his fellow students being thrown out of the seminary. This has happened because it's suspected that they're in love with each other (the movie uses that phrase, instead of "gay"). A subplot like that inspires questions 'Mass Appeal' never addresses, such as: are they sleeping together? Does this mean they plan to become priests living a lie, or will they honestly take the vow of celibacy? Is the problem that they're in love, or that they're homosexual at all? The specifics of the situation are left vague and hazy, and incredibly, these two seminary students never appear onscreen. Stuff like this grabs our attention while it's there, but that's nothing compared to how distracting it is when it disappears.

There is also a very badly handled third-act development, in which Mark confesses to Farley that he has slept with both men and women, though of course he's given all that up for the priesthood. The Monsignor (Charles Durning), upon learning this, looks for the first opportunity to get rid of him. This is not even close to the first scene in which Durning has made it clear that he's going to be the film's villain, nor is it the first which takes great pains to make it clear that Durning acts alone, and that we're not supposed to equate his feelings with those of the Church. Indeed, so much time is spent laboring over this distinction that it obviously never occurred to anyone that the movie didn't really need a villain in the first place.

This all builds up to the film's climax, a sermon by Father Farley which is by far the worst scene in the film. Sitting through this unbelievable, shameless, insulting speech, I wondered if the filmmakers were really expecting us not only to be caught up in its feel-good Do Your Own Thing message, but to actually not notice the way it carefully ignores a crucial plot point in order to escape through a loophole. Farley urges his parishoners to rally around Mark for being unfairly booted out for his "past," the speech is a rousing success, the parishoners smile, Farley smiles, Mark smiles, and the credits roll with the word "bisexuality" never having come out of Farley's mouth. As Mark walked triumphantly off into the sunset I could not help wondering what could possibly happen next, except that he would be booted out anyway, the parishoners would change their minds after getting the whole story, and nobody would end up liking Father Farley very much. Why not have a braver ending? Was it so important that the audience felt real good at the end that 'Mass Appeal' had to invent this conclusion, which only works if you haven't been paying attention and don't plan to start?

Lemmon and Ivanek provide two fine performances here. Lemmon has proved again with this movie that he is not merely a good comic actor, but a good actor (all the more shame that the movie isn't sure and keeps feeding him comedy material when it's not wanted). Ivanek achieves a real believability: he does not seem as though he's performing his lines, but as though he has really thought about the issues he discusses, and knows what he's talking about. We like them both, in a way, no matter which viewpoint we agree with. I can't say how the story would have turned out if it had had the courage of the acting, and that's kind of the point; when we start being able to predict what happens in a story like this, there's nothing left to be interested about.
Movie Guru Rating
Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable. Below Average.  Mediocre. Has substantial flaws, but is watchable.
  2.5 out of 5 stars

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