After having directed three consecutively worse comedies, the real question one has going into Kurt Hale’s fourth LDS comedy is just how bad is it? Suprisingly, it’s not that bad. In fact, I’m willing to say it’s actually his best. It’s a major upswing from The Home Teachers, at least. It was also much better than Halestorm’s recently released Suits on the Loose, which was so bad I didn’t even feel like typing out a review.
I also think appreciating something like Church Ball lies in recognizing it for what it is. If we go in expecting comedy on a par with the material common to the Wilson brothers, we’re probably going to be disappointed. There are a few scenes that fall flat (an odd afterlife scene near the end comes to mind) and Hale still likes to maintain his slapstick, farcical, over-the-top brand of humor. But I think if we recognize Church Ball as Adam Sandler/Chris Farley humor it becomes easier to enjoy and it really is pretty constantly funny.
The film, both in tone and story concept is very nearly a churchy version of Ben Stiller’s Dodgeball. Basic storyline: a motley bunch of church members in the Mud Lake congregation learn they need to work together and become a team in order beat the athletic, well-dressed but hyper-competitive Crystal Hills congregation. All the trappings of an underdog sports story are there, mixed in with jokes about the incongruence of a lack of sportsmanship in a church sports setting.
The good guys include Andrew Wilson as the one normal guy in the bunch, the four and a half-foot Gary Coleman, an overweight doughnut maker, a guy who keeps getting technical fouls because of swearing (all of which is fully bleeped out), an older janitor, an east-European guy who struggles with his English, and Clint Howard playing, well, the kind of guy you would imagine Clint Howard would play. Fred Willard gets some funny lines in as basketball-enthused Bishop and Thurl Bailey plays the story’s conscience as Wilson’s mentor.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is its ability to simultaneously be wholly Mormon and yet lack anything particularly Mormon at all. Neither the word “Mormon” nor “LDS” are ever used, the word “ward” is replaced with “congregation”, “Sacrament Meeting” with “services” and in the one instance they might have said “Mormon” they said “Christian.” “Bishop” as the leader of the congregation is the closest thing you get. Likewise, the humor is all very general and fully translatable to the Christian world as a whole.
And yet, it’s all very clearly and obviously Mormon. Much more so than the likes of Saints and Soldiers or Napoleon Dynamite. I imagine that it probably won’t even occur to many western Mormons that there’s anything different in the film’s Mormonness than The Singles Ward or The R.M. At the same time, I think audiences in the Bible Belt will be able to watch it without perceiving anything Mormon in its content at all. That’s a pretty ingenious marketing plan. It will be very interesting to see if the film catches on in the Christian communities as it’s clearly primed to.
The single worst thing about Church Ball is an unfortunate one because it seems so unnecessary. The cinematography is terrible. Though Kurt Hale’s level of humor became increasingly worse through his first three films, I think his picture got increasingly better. Church Ball is back to a Singles Ward level. Indeed, it looks like a film a singles ward would create. I’m not sure what happened here, if Hale lost the funds needed to create a clean picture, but the thing looks like it was filmed on his home video camera ““ and different video cameras at that. A few scenes had problems with the sound too. When people pay full price to see a movie in a movie theater, they expect it to look like a movie and not a Spanish TV soap opera. People are generally willing to accept a different kind of picture when it comes to small budget films, but I have to imagine that something that looks like this is going to have adverse effects on its popularity.
But at the end of the day, I think what really matters to audiences is whether they come out laughing. I have to say I laughed almost as much as I did in Dodgeball, and that’s saying something. So I like the direction Hale appears to be headed, and I can now say that I do hope to see another one from him.