Review: Mobsters & Mormons (C+)

Mobsters & MormonsIt’s obvious that LDS filmmakers are frustrated.  Budgets are tight, which affects the overall quality of the film, which lowers the number of people who will see the movie, which hampers the funding for the next movie since no one went to see the first, which creates even lower budgets, which…well, you see the problem.

LDS pictures simply don’t play well outside of Utah for obvious reasons, and even within Utah many members (those with small kids…like me) tend to wait for the DVD anyway, so the prospect for box-office success is limited.

It’s easy to sympathize with their struggles…except that as long as a ticket to an LDS film (like Mobsters and Mormons) costs exactly the same amount as a ticket to a Lord of the Rings or Star Wars movie, it must be judged by the same standards as every other movie.

The solution is relatively simple: LDS cinema needs well-written movies.  Writing should be the one aspect of filmmaking that is least affected by low budgets.  Good writing — strong characters and sharp dialogue — can often rise above so-so acting and production values, and will attract movie-goers who may or may not care about the movie subject matter (a stumbling block when trying to get ‘crossover’ appeal for a movie that has “Mormons” in the title…)

It’s not likely that LDS films will ever be able to offer fantastic special effects and A-list movie stars, but smaller independant ‘niche’ movies have survived (and thrived) with that restriction for decades.  Well written movies that are sharp, clever, and thought-provoking are LDS films’ best chance at success.  Plus, the inherent spiritual potential of an LDS film (as yet untapped by most LDS films to date) opens up a wide variety of deep experiences that even big-budget blockbusters will find difficult to match.

I’m still waiting, though, for the post “God’s Army/Best Two Years” LDS movie that has the writing quality to demand the attention of the movie-going public and begin to maximize the potential of LDS cinema.

And, unfortunately, I’m still waiting…  Mobsters & Mormons has a few laughs and clever ideas, but still struggles to create any comedic or narrative momentum. Like other LDS films, it’s not the low budget, but writing issues that bring it down.

Mobsters & Mormons is essentially a one-joke comedy — not an unforgivable sin if that one joke happens to be a good one.  In this case, the idea of a New York mobster living in Utah has some good comic potential.  In the only role in the movie that really matters, George (aka Carmine “The Beans” Pasquale) is played with attitude and panache by Mark DeCarlo in one of those roles that I’m sure actors crave — one that allows a bit of self-indulgence and over-the-top acting.  If George’s personality becomes wearing over the course of the movie — which it does — it’s not because lack of effort, but because his character has no support from anyone else.

The limitations of a ‘one-joke’ plot become obvious fairly quickly within a 90 minute movie, and that’s where the writing weaknesses start to appear.  George is a solid character, but needs help from others in the movie.  Unfortunately, none of the other subplots — the relationship between George’s son and Brother Jaymes’s daughter, for example — amount to anything.   That leaves George to support the entire movie by himself, and that’s an impossible task.

Many of the scenes with George are quite good — his flirting with the sisters at church, and his verbal riffs with the local Saints upon moving in, for example.  Other scenes have promising ideas, but are undercut by the writing with bad pacing:  George reading the bedtime story to the kids, George shaking down the scrapbook businesses, George and his son extracting ‘information’ from the paint-ball kids — all have good ideas, but take far too long to develop and don’t have enough of a payoff at the end.  (I didn’t even understand the ‘guinea pig’ reference until I read on EricDSnider.com a day later that ‘guinea’ is an archaic term for Italians.  Oh.)

Other than George, the same writing issues hinder the development of other supporting characters.  Shallow characterizations abound, such as Sister Means (the town gossip and resident ‘that’s so inappropriate’ woman) who is so broadly drawn her scenes become difficult to watch.  (The “mailbox scene” between her and Sister Jaymes is particularly bad.)  Ditto for the family across the street who refuse to associate with the new move-ins.  (Coldness, sure…hiding in their house and then running to their car to leave so they don’t have to share a word or a glance with the displaced mobsters?  A little bit of a stretch…)

Good writing presents characters (even funny, comedic characters) in a realistic light — they’re fictional, even exaggerated, but have enough realism for viewers to identify with them.  Mobsters & Mormons obviously wants viewers to recognize elements of cultural xenophobia and lack of charity towards people different from us within ourselves based on the depictions of Sister Means and other “hostile” Mormons.  However, for that to work, characters such as Sister Means can’t be so obvious and unsubtle a caricature.  Instead of squirming in your seat as the characterizations hit uncomfortably close to home, you end up rolling your eyes instead.  Without stronger characters, the ending — where we are lectured about acceptance and charity — attempts to push across a lesson that it hasn’t fully earned.

Yes, LDS films are struggling, but Mobsters & Mormons is a ‘just okay’ movie, which is acceptable for a rental, but ‘just okay’ movies are not going to cut it if the LDS film genre is going to transcend the boundaries of Utah into notable film status.

Final Grade: C+

Analysis and Other Comments (possible spoilers):

(1) How familiar are Mormons in general supposed to be with Italian mafia culture?  You’ve Got Mail made the joke that every male in the country has seen “The Godfather” series…although (as it happens) I haven’t.  Were episodes of “The Sopranos” commonly seen on the TVs of Utah families?  I mentioned the ‘guinea pig’ reference went over my head — how many in this film’s target demographic will actually understand it?  The most exposure a lot of us will have to mobster culture is from Fat Tony and his gang from “The Simpsons” (“I don’t get mad…I get stabby!”)

The reason the concept of mobsters and Mormons mixed together sounds interesting as a ‘fish out of water’ comedy is because the two cultures are far removed from one another…but if they’re *that* far removed from one another, a film with one side as its target audience can’t assume deep knowledge of the culture of the other side, right?

(2) Inside of Mobsters & Mormons with its slapstick comedy about mobsters who talk about taking care of ‘that thing’ and pretending to be Robert De Niro, I sensed a good drama fighting to get out.  The inherent conflict between the lifestyle of a mobster and the lifestyle of a faithful Latter-Day Saint has great dramatic potential–more than just the framework for a standard ‘fish-out-of-water’ comedy.

Imagine a mafia man whose entire adult life has been a constant string of felonies ranging from extortion to assault (even murder).  Suppose that man meets the missionaries one day and–against all odds–decides to forsake his previous life and be baptized.  (Not realistic, you think?  Read about a similar story here…)

Suppose he moves to Utah and starts a new life amongst a bunch of life-long Church members.  His earlier friends (and many family members too) have abandoned him due to his sudden change in philosophy, so he starts his new life alone.  He’s hopeful that his new Church member neighbors will fill the void by being friendly and supportive throughout this difficult transition period, but is disappointed when many of them refuse to associate with him because he’s different.  In addition, many Church members openly wonder if he really has repented and forsaken of his earlier lifestyle, and is not, in fact, a wolf in sheep’s clothing bringing wickedness and misery to their lovely little utopia.

And perhaps they’re right — because as he attempts to find ways to support himself and his family legitimately, he is constantly beset by temptations–remnants from his earlier life that he has to struggle to keep buried.  Knowing all the things he’s committed in the past (and may yet commit in the future), he finds it difficult to truly forgive himself for his past and completely accept the healing power of the Atonement.

And, amongst all these personal trials, there’s always the fear — buried but always present — that his past is going to catch up with him one day and his life will be in danger from the denizens of the underworld in which he used to inhabit…

That sounds like it would work as a movie premise, don’t you? Something spiritually powerful and emotionally challenging.  How about it, Halestorm?

(3) Yes, there are a lot of Catholics in Utah. The scenes with the nearly empty church are (a) not realistic, (b) not particularly funny either, and (c) probably insensitive to boot…

(4) Britani Bateman (Sister Jaymes) really was pregnant during filming, which just became part of her character. (I imagine they had to cut down on her big action scenes, though… :)