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Father Farley drinks a little. He also goes to the races, is bad with first names, and tells "little lies" to get him out of tricky situations, like those involving domestic quarrels and slideshows with Monsignor Burke. But his parish loves him. Then he is assigned to look after a passionate young deacon who challenges him to step out of his blissful rut.
Jack Lemmon gives a very lived-in, often moving performance as Father Farley, and the best moments of "Mass Appeal" give us a chance to see Lemmon in his seriocomic element. But the film as a whole feels less smooth. Though it raises questions about saying what one believes versus being popular, "Mass Appeal" struggles to find a balance of its own, whether it wants to be a Neil Simon-style light comedy or a searing examination of the Catholic Church today.
Still, "Mass Appeal" is more good than not. It deals knowingly with the concepts of Catholicism, and hones in on the charms and pitfalls of the parochial life with small-bore detail. "Did I tell you about the coughs?" Father Farley tells the deacon, Mark Dolson (Zeljko Ivanek), cluing him in on one of the telltale signs a sermon-giver is losing his congregation. When giving a sermon, never say "you," always say "we." Less confrontational that way.
The problem is that Dolson is all about confrontation. He already has Monsignor Burke (Charles Durning) fuming about being called a "homophobic autocrat" for kicking out a pair of seminarians suspected of sleeping together. Dolson speaks in favor of the ordination of women, tells Farley he'd be a better priest if he drank less, and calls out the congregation during one sermon for their mink hats and blue hair.
Farley squirms from his seat behind the altar while his acolyte implodes in the pulpit, ignoring his hacking throng. "We'll be going out the back today," he mutters to an altar boy in a classic Lemmon aside.
My main problem with "Mass Appeal," as noted by other posters, was that I was never sold on Dolson's reason for becoming a priest. He seems more like a mouthpiece for Bill C. Davis, adapting his Broadway play, to vocalize his concerns about the church's position on wedge issues like celibate gays in the clergy. Ivanek plays him as a character who acts more from anger than conviction, which seems a wrong choice. You don't have to be an autocratic homophobe to think this guy, celibate or not, will have problems with his priestly office somewhere down the road.
There's a frostiness to Ivanek's scenes with Lemmon that's off-putting, and the sentiment squeezed out of them sometimes feels stagey and forced. Director Glenn Jordan worked mostly in TV movies, and while he frames his scenes well and builds a good pace, there's often a pedestrian quality to the overall presentation. You can't stick in a car chase with a film like this, but there are too many talking-head shots.
The best parts of the movie are Lemmon's scenes with Monsignor Burke, which Durning invests with his typical mix of menace and affability. Not just a heavy, Durning plays him as a bit lost. Burke really likes Farley but alienates him at the same time with his bullying, as subservience is the only kind of devotion this sacerdotal relic understands. When Dolson calls him out on his harshness, Burke targets him for his frankness and justifies his vendetta as churchly devotion.
One wishes Davis made Burke more than the bad guy, perhaps found a way to make him a more active player in the spiritual journeys of Farley and Dolson, journeys left largely unexplored here. Instead he's made the object of anger for the other characters, and even has a wormy henchman on call. Didn't Burke have his days as a lost seminarian, too?
"Mass Appeal" gets by with its light charm, its probing and atypical focus on the Catholic faith in practice, and most especially Lemmon's strong central performance. Even if you don't like Lemmon in every film of his you see, it's safe to say you will like him here. Sometimes it takes a lesser film to display a great actor, and that's what you get here.
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