Mass Appeal (1984)

mass appeal1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Priest and deacon argue.

Mark (Zelijko Ivanek) is a young rebellious man attending Catholic seminary, who has a rigidly idealistic approach to how he thinks things should be especially within the church and will routinely clash with his superiors. Father Tim Farley (Jack Lemmon) is a middle-aged man who enjoys not rocking-the-boat and basically just telling people what they want to hear specifically his congregation while avoiding controversial issues at all costs. Tim is put in charge of Mark for a month in hopes that he can teach him to be more tactful and not such an outward firebrand. The two argue quite a lot, but eventually start to bond. When Mark divulges that he had sex with other men in the past and that he has admitted this to the Monsignor (Charles Durning), which could get him kicked-out of the seminary, it puts Tim in a tough bind. Will he stand-up for Mark by refusing to allow the Monsignor to use Mark’s past against him, or will he slink away like he always has to the safety net of the quiet life where he avoids making a stir of any kind?

The film may seem initially like it’s a spiritual one as there are many scenes shot inside the church during Sunday mornings where it perfectly captures the ambiance of a church service including having the mothers quarantined inside a glass ‘crying room’ where they take their babies when they get cranky, but are still able to interact with everyone else via microphones. Yet the more you get into the movie the less religious it is with the centerpiece of the story being instead universal to everyday life as it deals with the different perspectives of the generations and how one wants to vigorously challenge the system while the other is content with accepting things as they are. The arguments that the two have could easily be transferred to debates in other areas of life whether it’s politics, or even business.

The story is based on a two character play, written by Bill C. Davis, that was first performed in small theaters with Davis playing the part of Mark Dolson, a character not unlike himself. Eventually it caught the attention of actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, who agreed to direct it while also helping to revise the script, which then lead to it being produced on Broadway with Milo O’ Shea as the priest and Eric Roberts, who later got replaced by Michael O’Keefe, as Dolson.

The movie made changes from the play including adding in characters like the Monsignor and Margaret, played by Louise Latham, who works as Tim’s housekeeper. I had no problems with the Monsignor role, which is well played by Durning, who makes a strong presence to the plot, but the Margaret character seemed a bit too extreme as she overreacts to saying even a little white lie and like it might get her ‘in trouble with God’. To me this was an unrealistic portrait of a theist as I don’t think they’re quite this stringent and can lie and sin at times like anyone else. It also made me wonder that if she’s so obsessed with being a ‘perfect Catholic’ then her friendship with Mark, who she gets along with initially, would turn frosty after she found out hat he had gay sex because in her mind, if she’s to follow the same Catholic principles, would go against the teachings, so she technically she shouldn’t be associating with him even though this doesn’t actually happen.

Spoiler Alert!

My main beef with the film, which is captivating for at least the first 45-minutes before it becomes too much like a filmed stageplay, is that we never get to see whether Mark is able to stay in the seminary, or not. The movie acts like the big payoff is seeing Tim give this fiery sermon in Mark’s defense, but I would’ve been more interested in seeing how the congregation responded to it. Did they come to Mark’s aid like Tim hoped, or did they turn on Tim and have him banished to a small church in Iowa, which he feared? Not having these questions answered doesn’t bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 14, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 39 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Glenn Jordan

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD-R (Universal Vault Series)

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