A self-righteous deacon (Željko Ivanek) comes under fire when he defends two gay seminarians. Jack Lemmon’s cynical pastor tries to teach him about church bureaucracy. Mass Appeal is better in concept than execution. Bill C. Davis’s screenplay, adapted from his stage work, indulges in simplistic, binary arguments. The pastor’s broad comedy and the deacon’s social awkwardness turn them into archetypes. They never feel like human beings despite the actors’ best efforts. It’s unclear why Ivanek believes in Catholicism or why he has so little sense of what a pastor does. Lemmon skirts by on his natural charm.
Let’s have a look in this spoiler filled recap.
Act One: Controversy
Scene One: St. Francis Catholic Church
FATHER JACK LEMMON: Good morning ladies and germs! They asked me why women can’t be priests. I can barely get my secretary to make me coffee. Wokka wokka!
(The congregation laughs. A young man stands.)
DEACON ŽELJKO IVANEK: It’s no joke. Women stayed with Jesus when he was on the cross.
LEMMON: Who invited James Dean? Wokka wokka!
Scene Two: Monsignor’s Office
MONSIGNOR CHARLES DURNING: I’m expelling two gay seminarians. Who will never appear on screen.
IVANEK: Jesus loved John, you homophobe!
DURNING: You’re immature and arrogant.
LEMMON: He’s just passionate.
DURNING: Then train him yourself. Or he’s out.
Act Two: Lessons
Scene Three: St. Francis
LEMMON: It’s your first sermon. Be charming. A five, six, seven, eight!
IVANEK: Why do you sinners go to mass? If you were truly devout the church would be obsolete!
CONGREGATION: Boo! We don’t come here to be preached to.
LEMMON: You’re here to inspire. Not insult.
IVANEK: You’re only here to entertain.
Scene Four: Monsignor’s Office
LEMMON: The church needs lunatics like you. But you lack survival skills. The Monsignor’s going to ask if you’re gay.
IVANEK: I’m bi.
LEMMON: Don’t tell him.
IVANEK: I told him.
Act Three: Honesty
Scene Five: A Park
LEMMON: I cut off my mother when she remarried. Then she died. That’s what comes of absolutes.
IVANEK: (wearing short running shorts.) I love the congregation. I love what they could be.
LEMMON: You need to love what they are.
Scene Six: St. Francis
IVANEK: (To the congregation) My fish died when the tank overheated. I wanted to save them. I want to save you.
CONGREGATION: Dead pets are sad. We sympathize.
DURNING: Bisexuals aren’t allowed in the Church. He’s expelled.
LEMMON: (Drunk) You’re a fool! He gave the best sermon we’ve had in years!
Scene Seven: The Final Sermon
IVANEK: Do you believe in anything anymore?
(Lemmon shoves Ivanek into a wall. Then cries.)
LEMMON: (To the congregation) Ivanek’s being persecuted. We need to take a stand.
CONGREGATION: Boring. Tell a joke!
LEMMON: No. I’m sorry. I needed your love too much to tell you the truth. I have to be better. Let us pray.
(Ivanek smiles and exits the church.)
It Has a Double Meaning
“Mass Appeal criticizes Father Farley for not dealing with issues his parishioners want to avoid. Yet the film does exactly the same thing.; it raises provocative questions and then gently pushes them to the side…”Michael Bronski, Gay Community News (Boston)
The play was a modest success. The film received mixed reviews. Gene Siskel praised Lemmon. But he felt adding the “shrewish” Monsignor to the story robbed it of nuance. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin found Lemmon too glib, praising the Broadway performance of Milo O’Shea. Out Magazine called Lemmon’s character sexually ambiguous. I don’t see it. Ivanek frequently wears flattering running shorts. Yet Lemmon shows no interest in his tasty thighs.
I think the stakes are higher if Lemmon is straight. The characters need to begin as opposites. Ivanek claims sexuality shouldn’t matter once a Deacon takes a vow of celibacy. Lemmon has to wrestle with his prejudice before he agrees. At least, I’m assuming he does. The screenplay doesn’t let him share his thoughts on the matter. The Monsignor claims there are too many neurotic, closeted priests. But no one addresses the darker controversies the Catholic Church has faced.
I revisited the film after watching Stephen Cone’s The Wise Kids. But Mass Appeal pairs better with John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 play Doubt: A Parable. Both pit the old Catholic guard against the new. Neither explains to an outsider why the church maintains it’s… (wait for it)… mass appeal. Wokka wokka.