Mass Appeal (1984)


(director: Glenn Jordan; screenwriters: from the play by Bill C. Davis/Bill C. Davis; cinematographer: Donald Peterman; editor: John Wright; music: Bill Conti; cast: Jack Lemmon (Father Tim Farley), Zeljko Ivanek (Mark Dolson), Charles Durning (Monsignor Thomas Burke), Louise Latham (Margaret), Alice Hirson (Mrs. Hart), Helene Heigh (Mrs. Hart’s mother), James Ray (Father De Nicola), Lois De Banzie (Mrs. Dolson); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: David Foster/Lawrence Turman; Universal Pictures; 1984)

“It tries to put a pleasant face on the Catholic Church.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Glenn Jordan’s film, a religious comedy, is based on the hit Broadway play by Bill C. Davis. It tries to put a pleasant face on the Catholic Church and also tries to counter the usual reactionary church policies by showing there still might be a candidate for the priesthood who acts from inspiration. It brings up hot-button issues such as women as priests, the handling of gay priests and how to deal with fiery topical sermons, but skirts any follow through on these issues by taking a more liberal stand without trying to upset the apple cart. Joan B. Kroc is the executive producer (she’s the widow of McDonalds mogul and owner of the San Diego Padres Ray Kroc).

Father Tim Farley (Jack Lemmon) has been a popular priest in his affluent big city church (filmed in Riverside, Pasadena, and Hancock Park, California) for a number of years as he placates his congregation with practical advice and is adept at clerical politics. To further his popularity with all parties concerned, he uses charm, harmless lies, inanities, mild jokes and cunningly never takes a firm stand on controversial issues. Into this cozy picture comes an earnest young seminarian, Mark Dolson (Zeljko Ivanek), who is naive about political and social matters and can’t help himself in trying to shake things up despite the risk of expulsion by the head of the seminary, Monsignor Thomas Burke (Charles Durning). The crafty Monsignor assigns Mark as deacon in Farley’s church and expects him to teach the student how to be tactful and tow the Church’s “party line.” But Mark ignores the priest’s kindly paternal advice and upsets the Monsignor further by telling him of his homosexual relations before entering the seminary and giving a confrontational sermon that upsets many of the parishioners. Instead of Farley converting Mark, it works the other way around and the film climaxes on Farley giving a heart-wrenching sermon defending the idealistic Mark and railing against his unfair expulsion.

The film features superb acting, a literate script, and a good central theme. With no cynicism intended, I just am not ready to say “Thank you for being so honest!” It seemed too easy to have this bland ideological debate with the self-satisfied glib Lemmon character and the self-righteous callow student that builds to its emotional payoff without resolving a single thing it brought up.


REVIEWED ON 11/22/2005 GRADE: B-