TIMOTHTY FARLEY(Jack Lemmon) is a man comfortable with his job: flexible hours, great fringe benefits, plenty of time to include a healthy appetite for golf, good port, and expensive cars. No midlife crisis here-lots of friends, hordes of admirers, all, an adequate hero for a mediocre movie. But Mass Appealgives to this good ol' boys a bizarre twist; rather than spending his morning writing letters to constituents, as we might expect, Farley instead stands at the front of a church and leads a congregation in the Profession of Faith. Timothy Farley is a priest, and a very contented one of Sunday masses, "On the Road to the Priesthood. If, as he puts it, "the collection plate is the Nielsen rating after the sermon, "then Father Farley is definitely a successful celebrity priest.
Sound familiar? It should: the corrupted priest following for the modifications made here for the benefit of the TV generation) has been around and has been satirized since the earliest days of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet Farley is the latest, the most inventive and complex, in this reliquary of triteness, this film of continuous banality. Lemmon copes admirably: at moments reminiscent of Ronald Reagan at his complacent best, he creates with terrifying familiarity a portrait of the sycophantic politician per excellence. He oozes charm, exudes insincerity, succeeding so well, in fact, that the only thing priestly about this bon vivant is the funny collar he wears. It appears as just that, and in no way a credible proof of his purported priestly status. Why not call a spade a spade the man a pinstriped suit.
So where's the tension, the plot? You may well ask. What there is of a plot consists primarily of a so-called internal conflict: Jack Lemmon torn between the desire to save his own skin and that of a seminary student and would-be priest. Mark Dolson, (Zeljko Ivanek) from the blind prejudices of the cranky and overwright Monsignor Burke (Charles Durning), the head of the seminary and of a true cardboard villain worthy of a ten-gallon hat and a black cowboy suit.
AS THE AGENT of this conflict, the character of Dolson is scarcely. Credible and even less like cable; with his wide-set eyes and square jaw, lvanek makes him appear almost Wagnerian in his stupidity. Presumably it is Dolson's duty, as the young idealist, the "hotheaded seminarian," to fight ceaselessly and crudely for truth, justice and the American way-sometime after his daily ten-mile run, presumably it is our duty to be charmed by the natural simplicity of his tantrums as when he a onetime bisexual, melodramatically denounces the Monsignor as a "homophobic autocral.
Dolson's every word, every gesture breathes defiance so far so good. But are we spring from a true religious fervor? Is the hell is James Dean doing in a seminary anyway? In one of the too-frequent moments of agonized soul-searching thirdly a spectator sport). Dolson reveals to Father Farley the real reason for his bizarre and desperate wish to become a priest: boredom and fatigue from too much debauchery, too soon. But are we really to believe that he would rather enter the priesthood as something of a medieval crusader than take a brief vacation, or just head off to a regular college? And who cares anyway?
At least there is old Margaret. Father I arley's much-abused housekeeper: hardly anyone's idea of a great time, but a useful sort of person to have around--thank God she's there to keep the Father on the straight and narrow. Played with great enthusiasm by Louise Latham. Margaret is as eminently predictable as the other characters, but at least succeeds in engaging our attention; dishing out mashed potatoes with the air of a martyr, she is the very image of virtuous spinsterhood--faithful, honest, and pitifully boring.
Apart from all its banality, Mass Appeal is a curious film: curiously irreligious for a film which professes to be about religion, albeit mass-produced And more offensively, strangely self-important for a presumably comic film: centered around the burning question "Is there a place for ethics in the priesthood?" it provokes instead the query: "Is there a place for priests in Hollywood?" We wonder what may have been the roic of "technical advisor" Father Joseph Battaglia: maybe to show them how.