The Real World: Modern Mormonism as Found in ‘Mobsters and Mormons’ and ‘States of Grace’

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This article was written on assignment for Irreantum, a literary journal published by the Association for Mormon Letters. It was never published, however, due to some managerial chaos that ensued after the journal’s editor died unexpectedly in 2006. Here it is, though. You can tell it’s scholarly because it has footnotes.

The Real World: Modern Mormonism as Found in ‘Mobsters and Mormons’ and ‘States of Grace’

By Eric D. Snider

[Author’s note: This essay considers themes in the films “States of Grace” and “Mobsters and Mormons,” and in so doing discusses plot elements in more detail than an ordinary review would. As much as possible, I have avoided mentioning more details than is necessary to make my point; however, in some cases, it is inevitable. Readers who have not seen these films and wish to do so “unspoiled” may therefore want to save this essay for later.]

The Mormon Cinema movement produced two films in the last quarter of 2005 — “States of Grace” (aka “God’s Army 2”) and “Mobsters and Mormons” — that were remarkable for one thing: honesty. Some of their story elements may fail the “Could that really happen?” test, but their themes ring true. These films depict Mormonism as existing in a real world — one where there are positive qualities to be found in other religions; where there are problems even within communities of saints; and where ALL people need redemption, not just the “bad guys.”

Latter-day Saints recognize these facts as being part of real life, yet they seldom make it into Mormon films. LDS movies tend to show glossy, idealized views of life, with clear-cut rights and wrongs, and the vast majority of the characters choosing the former. Only the movies’ villains ever do anything truly wrong. The “Work and the Glory” movies even make sure to give them all beards, so we’ll know which side they’re on.

This cinema of idealism is useful, of course, as a means of showing us what we strive for, as well as for pure escapism. (There are plenty of things in life that are “true” that we don’t find entertaining enough to include in our movies.) But in some ways, it does Mormon culture a disservice by failing to reflect who we really are as a people.

“States of Grace” and “Mobsters and Mormons” suggest that the Mormon Cinema movement is gaining maturity and beginning to treat Mormons as they really are. These films seek to show (in very different ways) how real Mormons exist in a real world.

Not Mormon? Not a Problem

Both films focus on characters who find themselves in clear-cut missionary situations, yet both films end with several non-Mormon characters remaining unconverted. Some belong to other religions, and while their Mormon friends would no doubt love to see them convert, the issue is not forced. The viewer gets the sense that seeds have been planted, and that perhaps over time the non-Mormon characters will embrace the gospel. In the meantime, the movies are content to let them be.[1]

“Mobsters and Mormons,” a comedy written and directed by John Moyer, is about a Mafioso who enters the Witness Relocation Program with his wife and son and moves to an unnamed Utah suburb. These hard-nosed New Jersey types being surrounded by Utah Mormons inspires much of the film’s fish-out-of-water comedy, and it also creates a scenario where one might expect to see a conversion and baptism in the end.

Yet the mobster, now going by the name George Cheeseman (played by Mark DeCarlo), has no such conversion. He and his wife Linda (Jeanette Puhich) and teenage son Rick (Clayton Taylor) are lapsed Catholics, and George initially rejects his Mormon neighbors’ invitation to attend church. (“I don’t go to my own church,” he says. “I’m gonna go to somebody else’s?”) In fact, he’s on his guard throughout the film, well aware of Mormonism’s fondness for proselytizing.

His best friend in Utah is Michael Jaymes (Scott Christopher), first counselor in the ward bishopric and a fairly accurate depiction of what you’d call an ordinary, everyday Mormon, neither overly pious nor crazily unorthodox. He befriends the Cheesemans like a good neighbor, not like someone salivating at the chance to convert the new heathens. When George is suspicious, Michael reassures him — quite sincerely — that he’s really just trying to be a good neighbor and friend.

This tactic is exactly what the situation calls for. While George would have rejected a hard-sell approach, he warms up to Michael as a friend, and even defends him as a good man and a good Mormon when some of Michael’s ward members doubt him later in the film. An aggressive missionary approach early on would have ended the relationship before it began.

Not only do George and his family members remain Catholics when the movie is over, but being Catholic — or at least being something other than LDS — is depicted in a positive light, as a worthwhile thing for a family to be. When George, befriended by Michael and gradually warming up to his new life in Utah, begins to feel more like a good husband and father, he suggests they go to church together as a family. And they do — the Catholic church. A lesser film (or one produced by the LDS Church as a proselyting tool) would have had them going to sacrament meeting when they felt the urge for religion, ignoring that they have backgrounds in a different faith and would probably go with what’s familiar.

In “States of Grace,” the missionary opportunities are even more obvious, since the main characters are, in fact, missionaries. They do have a conversion, an African-American gang member named Carl (Lamont Stephens) who has come to ponder his mortality after nearly dying in a shootout. But the seeds of religion were planted by his grandmother, a church-going old woman who read to him from the Bible and taught him to pray. He only turns to the Mormons because, as Fate would have it, it was they who administered first aid to him when he lay dying in the street.

The notable character the missionaries do not convert is Louis (Jo-sei Ikeda), a homeless man who once was a Pentecostal minister in Kentucky but lost it all through alcoholism and adultery. He now spends his days preaching to passersby on a Santa Monica beach. The elders, Lozano (Ignacio Serricchio) and Farrell (Lucas Fleischer), take him into their apartment for a few days when they find him lying ill behind a Dumpster — a parallel to how they met Carl, of course, but with different results. Louis isn’t looking for spiritual guidance. He’s already firm in his faith. But the missionaries’ fellowship of him renews his desire to get his life back in order, and to that end he finds a new church to preach in. When he does, the elders are happy for him. They make no overt attempt to dissuade him, to tell him his beliefs aren’t good enough, or to suggest that instead of being a Pentecostal he should be a Mormon. Louis is open to truth when he finds it, preaching King Benjamin’s sermon on the street after browsing through a Book of Mormon in the elders’ apartment. The elders, likewise, are happy to take things one step at a time with Louis.

“States of Grace,” the work of writer/director Richard Dutcher, strives for realism in its presentation of a Los Angeles where there are many religions, races and nationalities. Mormons are a minority: The only LDS people we spend any time with are the missionaries and their mission president. The live nativity scene that plays a crucial role in the film’s spiritual climax is sponsored by a Lutheran church, not by a Mormon ward. And when a non-member gives Elder Farrell a token of her esteem, it’s a crucifix — and the movie sees it as a genuine gesture of faith, not as a worthless icon of a false religion.

This acceptance of other religions doesn’t mean that Moyer and Dutcher are backing down from Mormonism’s assertion that it is the one true church. There is no “all paths lead to God” wishy-washiness going on here. The films merely accept that in the real world there are good people of other faiths who, realistically speaking, are not going to convert to Mormonism anytime soon. The films don’t see a need to cast all non-Mormons as villains, or all villains as non-Mormons.

Mormons, Heal Thyselves

Not only do “Mobsters and Mormons” and “States of Grace” depict other religions positively, but they have the nerve to depict some aspects of Mormon society negatively. The films indict us for our flaws in the hopes that the criticism will improve us.

“Mobsters and Mormons” does it with satire. The character of Louise Means (Jan Broberg Felt) represents judgmental, closed-minded Mormons, a class of people that all Latter-day Saints, unfortunately, are familiar with. The neighborhood busybody and ward chorister, Louise is appalled that a non-Mormon family has moved onto the street at all, let alone that people like Michael Jaymes and his family are befriending them. In one scene, she confronts Kate Jaymes (Britani Bateman), “concerned” that Kate’s sister-in-law Julie has been hanging out with Rick Cheeseman. “He’s not a member of the church,” Louise says. “Who knows what his values are?” (As if only Mormons have morals.) “I thought that you and your husband, what with him being in a position of leadership, would want to set the standard for the community.”

Kate puts her in her place. “We are setting a standard,” she says. “We had the Cheesemans over for dinner…. It’s called friendshipping. You should try it sometime.” Kate misses the point entirely, as self-righteous people are wont to do. She immediately calls her friends to spread the word that not only are the Jaymeses being nice to the Cheesemans, but that they fail to see the error in that course of action, too.

Moyer does not allow for the possibility that some of Louise’s objections might be reasonable. The Cheesemans, let us not forget, actually ARE mobsters, and there may be some wisdom to being cautious about letting your teenagers associate with newly arrived strangers. George even made eyes at Louise while she was singing a solo in church. But like all good satirists, Moyer leaves the gray shades out and paints his pictures with broad, black-and-white strokes. Louise is a self-righteous buffoon, pure and simple. The audience never thinks otherwise. Even people who are like Louise in real life probably watch her on the screen and think, “Wow, what a sanctimonious jerk she is.”

In another scene, as George is coming to realize Mormons don’t smoke or drink, Michael explains the Word of Wisdom, calling it “a health code that the church practices.” George responds: “I’ll tell you something about your ‘health code.’ I have seen some of the biggest, chunkiest people I have ever seen in my life waddling around Utah…. You’re givin’ up the smokes, you’re givin’ up the booze. Maybe you people should think about givin’ up the baked goods.”

The scene is played for laughs — Moyer is a stand-up comedian, so observational humor is his stock in trade — but it makes an incisive point. As a society, Mormons tend to focus on the “thou shalt nots” of the Word of Wisdom, and not enough on the “thou shalts” — hence the irony of people forsaking alcohol and tobacco for “health reasons” while scarfing down super-sized milkshakes and double-cheeseburgers (and not just in times of winter or famine, either).

George notices that people like Louise Means are shunning him, and he mentions it to Michael, who apologizes for the fact that “there are some Mormons who aren’t very good at being Mormons.” Among these is Michael’s own sister, teenager Julie (Olesya Rulin), who, like many teens, hasn’t yet realized for herself how enriching the gospel can be. She fakes a stomachache to get out of church, and tells Rick Cheeseman that she’s sorry he “had to suffer through it.” The kicker is that Rick actually enjoyed church. He likes the camaraderie of the other young men and is looking forward to playing paint ball with them. Julie doesn’t know how good she’s got it.

As an outsider, George can make observations about us that we are sometimes too close to the situation to recognize. He can also speak pointedly about our shortcomings when he has to, as in the film’s climax, where he defends Michael to some of his ward members: “I don’t know if the Mormon God is the one true God…. But I can tell you this: If there is one ounce of truth in the Mormon church, and I relied on the people in this room to find out about it, I’d never know! Some of [you] wouldn’t even give me and my family the time of day!”

Though he doesn’t know it, George is echoing the words of Elder M. Russell Ballard, whose landmark talk in the October 2001 General Conference urged saints in areas where they are the majority — Utah, in other words — to be good friends to their non-Mormon neighbors. (I will have to beg Elder Ballard’s pardon for going against his suggestion that we not even use terms like “non-Mormon” and “non-member.”) In fact, “Mobsters and Mormons” follows that talk so closely that it wouldn’t surprise me if Moyer had it next to him when he wrote the screenplay. Elder Ballard’s admonition to “get to know your neighbors … and do so without being pushy and without any ulterior motives” is exactly followed by Michael Jaymes, while his rebuke of “narrow-minded parents who tell children that they cannot play with a particular child in the neighborhood simply because his or her family does not belong to our church” is exactly contradicted by Louise.[2]

“States of Grace” is not set in a Mormon community, but we see an extension of such a community in Elder Farrell’s character. We don’t know much about him, except that he has been LDS all his life and seems to have led a fairly sheltered existence. His reaction upon seeing Elder Lozano’s tattoos, left over from before Lozano joined the church, suggests that Farrell has never seen a tattooed Mormon before, and he is genuinely alarmed by the introduction of Louis — an alcoholic homeless man — into his life.

Unfamiliarity with the grittiness of urban life is nothing to apologize for, of course. It’s Farrell’s narrow-minded attitudes that nearly do him in. After Farrell commits a grievous sin in the film’s second half, he tells Lozano that before he left home, his father told him, “I would rather you come home in a casket than have you come back dishonored.” Lozano recognizes the falseness of this philosophy and says, bluntly, “Your dad’s a jerk.” But Farrell idolizes his father. He believes that he really ought to come home dead rather than dishonored. This belief leads to his drastic actions later in the film.

That attitude — that it’s better to be dead than to have sinned — denies the power of the Atonement and the possibility for repentance, yet is not entirely unheard of in some Mormon families. Unfortunately, the teaching, plainly destructive in this fictional character’s case and surely in real life, too, has a source: The book “Mormon Doctrine.” Elder Bruce R. McConkie writes: “Loss of virtue is too great a price to pay even for the preservation of one’s life — better dead clean, than alive unclean. Many is the faithful Latter-day Saint parent who has sent a son or a daughter on a mission or otherwise out into the world with the direction: ‘I would rather have you come back in a pine box with your virtue than return alive without it.'” (p. 124)[3]

But Farrell’s dad’s dogmatic attitude has crept into Farrell’s behavior in other ways, too. He obeys every mission rule to the letter, even when logic and Christian charity would dictate otherwise. He’s built himself a shaky foundation, one where blind obedience substitutes for testimony of the truthfulness of the laws. When he and Lozano find the ailing Louis, Lozano wants to let him sleep in their apartment — a clear violation of mission rules. He asks Farrell, “What would Jesus do?” Farrell’s answer is honest: “I don’t know.” Jesus said to follow the rules, but he also said to help your neighbor. So what do you do when the two contradict each other? Farrell is baffled.

As a result of insulating himself from real-life decision-making, Farrell isn’t strong enough to resist the world when it finally forces its way in. In talking to his and Lozano’s neighbor, a struggling young actress named Holly (Rachel Emmers), he learns her sad history and feels the utmost sympathy for her. Feeling vulnerable, worthless and devastated, Holly reaches for his hand in comfort. He quickly pulls it away. We cut to her reaction: She is now more dejected than ever. The story she has just related is about low self-esteem and being mistreated by men, and now Farrell has compounded it by refusing to touch her. The mission rule says not to have physical contact with a woman beyond a simple handshake, but surely this particular situation calls for it. Surely Jesus would not avoid the simple kindness of taking this woman’s hand in friendship at a moment when she most needs it.

Elder Farrell has found a question where the answer is not “yes” or “no” but the more difficult “it depends.” He takes Holly’s hand after all, which was probably the right decision for the situation. Except now that the door is open to the possibility of occasionally saying “yes” where before he had said “no” — now that he has experienced the reality of color in what had previously been his black-and-white world — his system of right and wrong is thrown off balance. He might trace his eventual downfall to that pivotal moment, and curse himself for holding her hand when the mission rules said not to. But the question he should have steadfastly answered “no” to was the one that arose before that, the one he apparently violated without even thinking about it: He shouldn’t have been alone with her in the first place.

Elder Farrell’s world comes crashing down after that, and he reverts to his old ways, the ways of his austere, high-handed father. In that world, there is always right and always wrong and never any overlap of the two. His mother, come to take him home from his now-ended mission, embraces him and says, “It’s going to be all right.” His mournful reply is, “How?” In his misery, he has reverted to being so didactic that, having made an error, he can’t see any way of correcting it. Fortunately, he eventually does see the light at the end of the tunnel, as discussed in the next section.[4]

Everyone Needs Redemption

“Mobsters and Mormons” doesn’t deal much in matters of sin and repentance among Latter-day Saints. Louise Means never changes her mind about the Cheesemans, though Julie does come to appreciate the church more than she did before. Still, George’s transformation from crime boss to family man makes for a nice secular parallel to the journey of repentant sinners. Consider: He leaves behind his old friends, changes his habits and routines, and becomes more active in church, all to make a better life for him and his family. He even gets a new name in the process.

It’s a major theme in “States of Grace,” however, the idea that all people — “good” people, “bad” people and everyone in between — are in need of redemption. Elder Lozano has already been through it. Much like Carl, Lozano was a gang member before finding the gospel and reforming. As Carl lies on the street, pumped full of lead and thinking he’s about to die, he confesses, “I’ve done some bad things, man.” Lozano answers, “I’ve done some really bad things, too, in my time.” Yet here he is, serving a mission and saving a life. If he can change, so can Carl.

To hear such a dramatic story of a mighty change of heart, you’d expect Lozano to be an excellent missionary. But he’s not. In fact, at this point, with only a month left in his mission, he’s realizing — thanks to his brush with death in witnessing the shootout and attending to Carl — that he’s been a half-hearted, lazy emissary of the gospel. “I think I was a better convert than a missionary,” he tells Farrell, who is as obedient and hard-working as Lozano has been apathetic. But Lozano has a testimony of repentance. He regrets his lackluster efforts as a missionary so far and wants to redeem himself during his final days. By the end of the film, there’s no question he has done it.

Farrell’s personal experience with the Atonement is not as strong. A lifelong member of the church, and apparently active through all that time, he never had to undergo a major change in his lifestyle or behavior to gain a testimony. Faced with having made a huge mistake, he doesn’t have the prior experience, as Lozano does, of recovering from it. Plus, as mentioned earlier, his father more or less told him he’d be better off dead.

Yet Farrell clearly knows the principles of the Atonement, having taught them successfully over the course of his mission, including to Holly when she tells him about her past. She feels like God must consider her as worthless as her ashamed parents do, but Farrell reassures her otherwise. “He loves you just as much as he did when you were a baby,” he tells her. “You could never do anything, not anything, that would make him stop loving you.”

Holly says, “You think so?” He replies, “I know so.” There is conviction in his voice. He has a testimony of God’s love. But later, when his own relationship with God is tested, he is in need of a reminder. Holly repeats his words back to him, adding, “You don’t have to die for your sins. I think somebody already did that.” In his despondency over having made such a grievous error, Elder Farrell had forgotten something very basic, something he had preached every day for the previous two years: that Jesus Christ suffered and died so that we can be forgiven of our sins.

Holly’s words help somewhat, but he is still at a loss when his mother comes to take him home. It’s a living nativity scene that finally gets through to him, in the film’s emotional finale. The woman playing Mary lets the observers — more or less the entire cast of the film — hold what we assume is her own baby, a dark-haired infant with a beatific smile. When it is his turn to hold the child, Elder Farrell breaks down. Though he doesn’t say it, we realize what’s going through his mind. This baby represents the Savior and all the promises he has made to those who seek him and desire to be cleansed of sin. Furthermore, the baby itself is pure, innocent and clean — and Farrell realizes that he can be that way, too, through the miracle of repentance.

What It Means

Some of these themes have been addressed, at least in passing, in Moyer’s and Dutcher’s previous films. “The Singles Ward” (2002, which Moyer co-wrote with director Kurt Hale) had an inactive LDS character who faced a self-righteous, uptight fellow saint. And Dutcher’s “Brigham City” (2001) dealt with an “outsider” and the idea of insulating oneself (or one’s community) from “the world.” But it’s in their latest work that Moyer and Dutcher put the ideas to their best use. Indeed, “Mobsters and Mormons” and “States of Grace” represent the best work either filmmaker has done so far. (From a critic’s perspective, I would put “States of Grace” at the very top of the list of all Mormon Cinema films.)

The reason these films are significant is that they address issues not previously dealt with very thoroughly or very well. People being good citizens while never converting to Mormonism; our own people being flawed; all people, even good ones, making mistakes — these are often uncomfortable realities for us to face. We’re so fervent in our belief that ours is the only true church that we often don’t like to acknowledge the fact that many, many people will never join it. We are so comforted by thoughts of “gathering Zion” that we prefer not to think about the problems that still arise even when the saints are assembled. We don’t like to think of missionaries sinning — or if we do, we like them to have been bad missionaries anyway, like the apostate in “God’s Army,” not good ones like Elder Farrell.

These films challenge our complacency, while also being the most important thing a movie can be: engaging and entertaining to watch. Together, they set a new standard of honesty that subsequent LDS filmmakers will have to live up to.

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Footnotes

[1]This multi-culturalism is comedically foreshadowed early in “Mobsters and Mormons,” in a scene set in New Jersey. A group of mobsters invades a convenience store run by a Muslim man in a turban. One of the hitmen says to the clerk, “As-salaam-alaikum.” At the puzzled look he gets from his colleagues, he explains, “I’m just doin’ my part to reach out.” Later, some of the film’s Mormon characters would exhibit the same “live and let live” philosophy.

[2]”Doctrine of Inclusion,” Ensign, Nov. 2001; online at http://www.lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,49-1-225-14,00.html

[3]Curiously, on the preceding page, Elder McConkie quotes Isaiah’s summation of the Savior’s Atonement: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” If Christ’s Atonement made forgiveness possible, then why would it be better to die than commit even a major sin?

[4]Farrell’s father, by the way, couldn’t bring himself to come to Los Angeles to face his sinful son, even though that son is also wounded, suffering and repentant. I say any father who wouldn’t move heaven and earth to rush to his son’s aid in such a crisis is exactly what Elder Lozano said he was: a jerk.

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