Review: The Best Two Years (A-)

The Best Two YearsThere’s a difference between good and great performers:  both perform impressive feats of skill, but the great performers make it look easy.

Comparing the world’s best magicians, athletes, musicians, and the like, one defining characteristic is not only what they can do, but how casual and effortless they make it seem.  You would think they just woke up one morning with great ability instead of painstakingly developing it over time.

The beauty of The Best Two Years is not just that it’s engrossing, funny, and heart-warming, but how easily it seems to do it. B2Y moves from good scene to good scene — from humor to pathos back to humor again — and barely seems to break a sweat doing it.  It’s a sharp contrast to many of the other recent LDS comedies which struggle to get even half-a-laugh most of the time.

The Best Two Years shares the same subject matter with God’s Army (LDS missionary work), yet the two movies couldn’t be more different — demonstrating how wide a range the subject of missionary work can be.   B2Y is not as ambitious or challenging as God’s Army, but is just as successful in the end by being simple and endearing — with more than a few laughs along the way.

From the fact that the majority of the dialogue is between four main characters within a single apartment you might guess (correctly) that The Best Two Years was originally a play.   As with most plays, the focus is on character and dialogue rather than dramatic action.   All four missionaries are solid, compelling characters and the banter between them is subtle and humorous.   Elders Calhoun and Van Pelt are, admittedly, written with pretty broad characterizations — common with play characters — but the actors portray them well and they avoid being over-simplistic.

B2Y does a couple of things specifically well which deserve mention. It doesn’t fall into the trap of making the entire movie only about the companionship of Elder Rogers and Calhoun with the other companionship there just as supporting characters. Elder Johnson in particular has a direct and personal involvement in key events near the end of the movie which properly treats him as a main character — in fact, showing an interesting turn around of some of the plot items introduced earlier in the movie.

Also, the film doesn’t neuter the doctrinal and spiritual aspect of missionary work (like The Other Side of Heaven did), but neither does it overwhelm the viewer with information or inside jokes that a non-Church member wouldn’t understand.  Of course, being a member — and especially having served a mission yourself — will help make some of the jokes funnier, but nothing in “B2Y” would be incomprehensible for non-member viewers.   I can’t say if many non-Church members would have a particular interest in watching B2Y at all, but since the film focuses on human characters and their universal trials and emotions, the film is certainly accessible to everyone without coming across as a two hour commercial for the Church.

The Best Two Years really is the best theatrical LDS content the industry has to offer.  Put this high on your list…

Final Grade: A-

Analysis and Other Comments (Possible spoilers)

(1) The Best Two Years is not nearly as ‘edgy’ as God’s Army, but does share with Richard Dutcher’s film a small and subtle message about blindly assuming someone who has completed a two-year mission ‘honorably’ is a hard worker, has high moral standards, and is fit to be a good husband and father.

At the beginning of the film, Elder Rogers has lost all interest in working and is just taking up space.   He does have a change of heart in the end, but (in real life) it’s probably more likely he would have just quietly finished out the last few months without doing anything.   Ask anyone who has served a mission and they can tell you that there are elders (and sisters, too) who after a certain point in their missions (sometimes right from the beginning) lose interest in doing anything productive and just idle away the time. They don’t do anything technically ‘wrong’ which is why most mission presidents (like the one in this movie) won’t send them home, but instead try to help them anyway they can.   Sometimes it works…and sometimes it doesn’t.

Some girls say they can ‘tell’ if their missionary was a faithful and hard worker when they’re dating and not just judge based on whether he completed the full two years or not. Can they?

(2) If any non-members do watch The Best Two Years, they might wonder at how often LDS girls seem to get engaged to guys they’ve just met for a few weeks.  “I’m sure Mormon girls don’t actually do that in real life,” they might think, “that must be an exaggeration for comedic effect, or something…”

Um…afraid not.  Without going into a long rant, it’s amazing how many LDS girls spend more time and thought picking out the wedding dress they’re taking to the temple, than the man they’re taking…

(3) One experience from my mission that watching The Best Two Years brought to mind:

In our mission we had one elder about whom it was obvious from almost the very beginning that his primary distinguishing characteristic was his sense of humor. It didn’t take too long before he became known as the mission ‘joker’ — someone who would always have a funny (often irreverent) comment for any situation.

As you might guess, he was not one of the top missionaries when it came to sharing the gospel.  However, he would not do anything outright wicked, rather just became one of THOSE elders where the mission president sighs and says ‘Okay…what am I going to do with him this month?’

As it happened, my mission president brought up this elder in one of my personal interviews and had some interesting things to say.  He said — admitting that every elder is still personally responsible for his own mission in the end — this elder doesn’t deserve all of the blame.

He said this elder probably knew early on in his mission that he was never going to be known as one of the best leaders, or one of the most spiritual, or one of the hardest workers, or have the best foreign language skills, but what he could be known for among all the other homogenous missionaries with identical suits and ties was being the ‘joker’.

Since it’s natural for people to enjoy attracting other people’s attention and standing out from the crowd, it became his accepted ‘persona’ in the mission.

But that might not have happened — he continued — if this ‘persona’ hadn’t also been simultaneously accepted and encouraged by everyone else in the mission as well.   Everyone thought this elder was funny — and that was part of the problem, because this contributed to the encouragement to be funny, even at the expense of other things.

In a way, he (the elder) was trapped, because once this persona was defined, everyone else treated him like the ‘joker’ and even if there came a time afterwards where he had the desire to be an effective, serious missionary, he probably felt he couldn’t get away with it as no one would take him seriously.

My mission president made the important and truthful point that in a lot of ways, our personas in life are shaped by how others treat us, and if, perhaps, one or more elders had been willing to treat this elder as a ‘serious’ missionary, instead of constantly giving him subtle encouragement to continue the ‘joker’ persona, things might have been different.

This came to mind, because at the beginning, Elder Rogers is a lazy missionary–no question–and Elders Johnson and Van Pelt treat him that way. Yet, when his new companion arrives, Johnson and Van Pelt tell him to treat Elder Rogers as if he was one of the best missionaries in the mission — and, guess what?  That seemed to be one of the keys towards Elder Rogers actually becoming one of the best missionaries in the mission at the end.