Review: Inspired Guns (B-)

inspiredgunsTwo LDS missionaries get caught up in mob activity after a case of mistaken identity in Inspired Guns, a new film releasing in theaters January 24th, 2014.

Inspired Guns (IMDB, official site) is the brainchild of writer/director Adam White, a newcomer to the LDS cinema scene.  Described as The Best Two Years meets Dumb and Dumber“, Inspired Guns shares DNA with other LDS films as well — most obviously, Mobsters and Mormons with some Suits on the Loose mixed in.

Elder Fisher has just a week left on his mission, and naturally that’s when the trouble starts.   A sudden transfer brings him a new companion, Elder Johnson, who doesn’t fit the traditional missionary mold.   His mission president tells him privately his task for the upcoming week will be “converting his companion”.

As you might expect, the two elders with disparate backgrounds and personalities constantly clash.  Elder Fisher is the ultimate Peter Priesthood missionary:  hard working but stuck-up, convinced with every fiber of his being that he knows the Right Way to do things, and tells everyone around him so.  Elder Johnson is laid-back, works at his own pace, and (much to the consternation of his companion) doesn’t automatically accept everything Fisher says as akin to scripture. While Fisher lays out his vision of how a missionary should walk, talk, and act, Johnson constantly quotes hip-hop lyrics and references his supposed ‘urban’ upbringing in the classic white-guy-trying-to-be-black-for-street-cred fashion.  (Johnson: “I grew up in the ‘hood, man!” Fisher:  “You’re from Park City!”  Johnson: “South CENTRAL Park City!”)

In the meantime, two low-level Mafia hoods named Roger and Larry are set up for extermination after a botched job.  When the missionaries accidentally interrupt the hit by contacting the pair in a plaza, Roger and Larry mistake them for fellow Family men telling them coded messages about “God(the)Father’s new plan”.   The other mob members mistake the elders for federal agents pressuring Roger and Larry to roll over on their brethren.  And the real federal agents tracking Mafia activity think the elders are part of the mob conspiracy.   Hijinx ensue.  Can the elders survive this web of mistaken identity, while still teaching and baptizing investigators?

Inspired Guns has funny moments but isn’t up to the level of better LDS comedies like The RM or The Best Two Years.  As expected from a first-time writer/director, there are some amateurish elements within the production and writing, but not enough to ruin the film.    LDS audiences who remember Mobsters & Mormons may feel deja vu all over again at seeing the same Mafia clichés and stereotypes, although Inspired Guns approaches it from a new angle without simply recycling the same jokes.

The humor in general is hit-and-miss but White keeps the pace moving, and there’s enough good lines and comedic moments that the film doesn’t drag.  The film gets a lot of mileage from common missionary conversations being misinterpreted in different ways depending on whether mob men or federal agents are listening:  “investigator” (police versus missionary) or “Family” for instance.  It’s all contrived, of course, but still clever at the same time.  One funny moment has mob guys afraid of “sleeping with the fishes” misunderstanding the missionaries’ desire to “dunk them in the water as soon as possible.”

It’s basically a one-joke premise, and your mileage may vary about how funny you find the contrived mistaken identity / mistaken impression moments from scene to scene.   Unlike many comedies that empty their quiver too early,  Inspired Guns saves some surprises (and laughs) for the end.

Elder Johnson (played by Dashiell Wolf) is the clear star of the show here, with a nice blend of physical and verbal humor.  The mobsters (despite the clichés) have their moments also.  The federal agents are more of a comedic disappointment.  (There’s a thin line between “funny dumb” and “dumb dumb” and the FBI guys are the latter.  One agent gets himself captured simply by having an unarmed mob guy walk up to him on the street and say, “Come with me.”  Two other agents misinterpret an LDS sacrament meeting as a “mob recruitment session” which is funny if you believe that federal agents have never heard of a “church” before.)

The heart of Inspired Guns is not about the mob at all, but the two elders and their relationship.  It should be no surprise that the elders grow to accept and like each other by the end, and that Elder Johnson’s ‘urban’ background and unorthdox approach to missionary work becomes helpful to them later.  White is serious about paralleling The Best Two Years in trying to capture a spiritual message about missionary work and one’s eternal destiny among random jokes about “The Family”.

However, this leads to my one big personal issue with Inspired Guns’ depiction of missionary work (and not just a laundry list of bad jokes or missionary inaccuracies).

There are inaccuracies, to be sure:  no mission president would give an elder a new companion his very last week, especially a brand new greenie.   Elder Fisher tries to baptize a guy the day after they meet without, you know, actually teaching him the missionary discussions first or bringing him to church.   Elder Fisher is also shown teaching a female investigator all the way through to baptism without having ever met her husband (um, why aren’t the sister missionaries in the area involved?)

However, those are irrelevant.  My real issue is that Elder Fisher is presented as the “hero” of the film, when he’s not.

From the beginning, Fisher is shown to be prideful, self-righteous, condescending, and judgmental to those around him, especially his companion.  (He tells Johnson he should not only give up hip-hop during his mission, but he shouldn’t listen to it AFTER his mission either.  Um….)

He informs people that he “knows what they need” and talks constantly about doing things “the RIGHT way” (read: HIS way), dismissing any alternate suggestions.

He pressures an investigator to get baptized immediately, for the sole reason that “I’m going home in two days”, as if the only important thing is that they meet HIS schedule and HIS timeline when making life-long spiritual commitments.

He talks (without irony) to a hesitant investigator about how “changing is hard, but we need to progress” and needing “to humble ourselves before the Lord” when it’s clear he’s only talking about OTHER PEOPLE needing to change and humble themselves, never himself.

When his mission president asks him rhetorically why he keeps giving him “difficult” companions, Elder Fisher says, “So I would have trials?”  (Dude, get over yourself!)

Basically, in my mission we hated guys like Elder Fisher.   Guys who were primarily about numbers, or getting those last few notches on their belt to brag about when they went home.  Guys who talked (and usually talked down) but never really listened.   Guys who assumed being ordained as a servant of the Lord meant their way of doing things was “the Lord’s way”, and told everyone else to get in line.

Now, see, Elder Fisher being this way isn’t actually the problem.  Having an identifiably flawed character is fine in a film — admirable even, especially as a nod to authenticity for real missionaries.  (Just about every RM in the world has served with a guy like Fisher.)  The problem is the film doesn’t seem to recognize these as flaws.

The traditional and expected story arc for Odd Couple pairings is that each half learns to love and respect the other and meet somewhere in the middle.  Johnson does his part: he has his own spiritual “awakening” and becomes more receptive to Fisher’s way of teaching.  (Johnson to Fisher: “I felt the power of your words when you teach.”  Even though it was actually Johnson’s sincere sincerity rather than Fisher’s mannered, practiced sincerity that changed the heart of their investigator.)

But the film skips the other half of the equation.   Elder Fisher doesn’t ‘learn’ anything in the end.  He doesn’t receive his needed attitude adjustment — his ‘comeuppance’, if you will.   Right up until the end, he’s the same person, and he gets everything he wanted on his own terms, including that one last desired baptism.

Sure, he grows to like his former companion — and their sincere embrace when they meet again after Fisher goes home is a great scene — but only after he becomes the person Fisher wanted him to become in the first place.  Maybe Fisher is truly different when he goes home, but there’s no opportunity for him to prove it.  When does Fisher get pushed out of his comfort zone and reevaluate his attitude and spirituality?  When does he get his lesson that not everything in a mission (or in life) works out the way you think it should?

There’s something missing here.   Perhaps Adam White (the writer) has a different opinion about Fisher’s growth and character arc throughout the film than I did.   Perhaps he doesn’t share my interpretation of Fisher’s character flaws, but I would find it disheartening if he actually considered Fisher’s self-centered brand of semi-sincere missionary work to be his ‘ideal’ for missionaries.   And that Fisher never receives an attitude adjustment within the narrative because he was judged not to need an attitude adjustment in the first place.   

If that’s the case, I don’t agree.   I believe the Church needs fewer “Elder Fishers” and more “Elder Johnsons” — missionaries who are open-minded enough to be receptive to spiritual things, but can relate to and care about people different from them on their own level without being bogged down by preconceived notions about the Right Way to do things.   Missionaries who view baptism and conversion as tools for the investigator’s benefit and spiritual growth, not merely as the fulfillment of their own personal goals, for personal glory.   The subtext of Inspired Guns implies the opposite.

Inspired Guns serves as a decent, if not exceptional, LDS comedy with some funny moments.   The film certainly isn’t The Best Two Years‘ equal (few films are), but it’s entertaining enough.   I just hope the potential future missionaries and their families that see it will recognize which of the two main characters is more worthy of emulation, and which one could use a little more humbling.

Final Grade:  B-

Additional Notes and Comments:

(1) I expected to lodge my usual complaint about the actors playing missionaries being far too old to be actual missionaries, but Dashiell Wolf (Elder Johnson) is only 22.  (Elder Fisher — David Lassetter — I couldn’t find any info.)

(2) This is not a story that depends on ‘realism’, but someone will have to explain to me what the FBI’s actual plan was.  The ending implies that the FBI seemed to know from the beginning that the missionaries were really missionaries and not mob agents, and were just using them as tools to get to the mob.   That (a) invalidates at least three scenes earlier in the film that no longer make any sense, and (b) would almost certainly subject the FBI to potential lawsuits from missionary families.