Mass Appeal

This film is not only 30 Years On, it may be closer to 50 years on. In other words, it may only be tolerable to those who are old enough to remember when movies were stories and character rather than spectacle and visuals. There is not a special effects shot, a digital insert, or any type of sound effect worth noting anywhere in this film. Based on a play by the same title, it features two characters and for the most part, they are the only people to attend to. On stage, there were only two parts, in adapting for the screen a couple of other roles were created but they are mostly superfluous. This is an actors piece, paced a a glacial rate that will bore anyone born after 1970. If you have a older persons sensibility, there is probably enough here to be interesting, as long as listening to people talk will entertain you.

mass_appealThe two stars are veteran Jack Lemmon and newcomer Zeljko Ivanek. Mr. Lemmon was a movie star for thirty years before this came out and remained one until his death in 2001. Mr. Ivanek is not a star but he has worked consistently since this came out and he is one of those faces you will recognize from a dozen movies and hundreds of TV episodes. Together they do justice to a piece that is small scale, and very clearly theatrical in it’s roots.

I don’t usually spend a lot of time outlining plot in my movie posts for two reasons. First, spoilers are irritating and people should get to experience a movie they are interested in with as clear a slate as possible. Second, why would someone want to see a movie when they already know the whole story? I’m going to bend my rule a little bit here because there are not a lot of surprises in this film, and I doubt that most of you will ever get to see it. You can stream it, but if you want it in a physical medium, it is MOD and most people are unlikely to order it that way. I bought a MOD copy a year ago for the purpose of this project, but I did not open it until today.

Father Farley (Lemmon) is a popular priest in an upscale parish in Connecticut. He is an avuncular presence in the lives of his congregation and he knows just how much he can push them. Mark Dolson (Ivanek) is a sincere brash seminary student on the ladder to priesthood. Dolson comes into Farley’s life and the two clash over style, faith and church doctrine. Each one needs to learn a bit from the other and they need to be honest with themselves about who they really are. While Dolson has become a deacon, his continuance on the path he has chosen is dependent on overcoming the doubts of  Monsignor Burke (Charles Durning), the man in charge of the seminary and the overseer of Farley’s parish.

Jack Lemmom was a good human being and a solid actor, but sometimes the seams of his performances showed. Here there are all kinds of mannerisms that remind us that he is performing. His gestures are somewhat broad, his face exaggerates too frequently and his voice gets high whenever there is an emotional moment of anger, and it drops deeply when sadness and fear are the emotions. Any actor  will do those things, the best make them seem natural and this is one of the places where Lemmon was not at his best but was simply passable. That is still better than 90% of other actors but it was less than we would expect from him.

map1Ivanek looks very young in this movie compared to the way most people will know him. His part is written as a naive true believer who can’t understand why saying exactly what he thinks could be a problem. Catholic theology is not my field but I suspect there are some pretty solid answers to some of the questions he raises. Farley is written to be feckless in the face of “truths” but also to be wise enough to know what the consequences will be. I’m not sure if we are supposed to see him as a wiser older counselor or as a sellout to his true beliefs. The guilelessness of Dolson may be hard to believe, but the casual approach to the truth that Farley suggests is at odds with at least one of the ten commandments I’m familiar with.

So the dialogue is often filled with sincere statements of faith and then contrasted to cynical and hypocritical actions of those professing to speak for their faith.MASS APPEAL, Zeljko Ivanek, 1984, (c)Universal

Dolan first shows up in a dialogue sermon at Farley’s Sunday Mass. I’m not a Catholic but I have been to a number of Masses with my friends and this looks like nothing I ever saw. It appears to be a theatrical invention that would allow conflicts of faith to be discussed in a dramatic context.

Mark’s passionate defense of two fellow students who are accused of holding onto a homosexual romance, brings his own inclinations under scrutiny. The heavy handed approach of Monsignor Burke, brings in more drama. Durning’s part was created for the movie and it feels like it was overdone. The friendly nature he puts forward in relating to his longtime associate Tim Farley, is belied by his ham fisted tactics with young Mark Dolson. It is difficultmass-appeal-2t to see that they are the same man. Durning does a reasonable job, in fact he may have auditioned in this role for the part of a priest in several episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond” twenty years later. He is not so much an evil character as he is one who is pig headed and that should not be a surprise to those familiar with a term like doctrine.

Sometimes the theme of the movie seems to be about Catholic Doctrine, but ultimately what it is about is an acting opportunity for the star. Since Farley is shown to be timid in confronting the congregation, we question his courage. When he is quick to tell a white lie, we might question his integrity, and when he drinks to excess, we might question the wisdom of having him as mentor and priest. Ultimately, the point of the film is to get him to confront those problems in his sermons. Just as Mark needs to learn to speak effectively at Mass. The film making flaw here is that Mark’s first sermon was fine and the use of the audience to show it’s failure was at odds with the content and delivery. Similarly both he and Farley make other sermons that require the parishioners respond incongruously to their actions. This obvious manipulation of the audience for dramatic purposes undermines what is otherwise a thoughtful series of questions about what a priest’s role really should be. The playwright/screenwriter is a little too cynical at times and the end of the movie is supposed to be ambiguous while still being inspiring. The director Glenn Jordan,  was a TV director who did make two other theatrical films but never made another one after this. He is best remembered for TV movies “Sarah Plain and Tall” and “Barbarians at the Gate”.

From my point of view, the best thing about the movie is that it is the biindexggest film role for one of those actors that everyone knows but no one can name. I saw a documentary a year ago titled “That Guy…Who was in that thing”, about many of today’s working character actors and he was featured. Here’s the guy and the way he looks now. He won an Emmy for “Damages” and has probably been in at least one of your favorite movies from the past twenty years. “Mass Appeal” gave him a shot at the big time and he has had a nice career even if that film has largely been forgotten.

4 thoughts on “Mass Appeal

  1. I’ve heard of this one, but haven’t seen it. And yes, Zeljko Ivanek is in everything. He was even in “Black Hawk Down”. Doing great work on TV, too, with “Madam Secretary” this past year.

  2. I like the film, “The Name of the Rose,” with monks and both Sean Connery and a very young Christian Slater. I like that Ed Norton film where he is accused of killing a Priest. On the lighter side is the Jewish rabbi and Ed Norton as a Priest in “Keeping the Faith.”

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