The curse of gay cinema so far has been its mistaken impression that tired, worn-out movie plots will suddenly become interesting if you put gay characters in them. The romantic comedy and romantic drama have most frequently been given this makeover, and the ones that have been successful are the ones that have produced likable characters, strong dialogue and engaging storylines — the qualifications for ALL good movies, you’ll notice, not just gay ones.
“Latter Days” takes the curse several steps further. It uses old romantic-drama devices — couple meets under false pretenses, e.g., one of them is on a bet, a dare, etc. — adds some gay cinema clichés — gay man hits on straight guy, who eventually realizes he’s gay — and then thinks all it has to do to make this paint-by-numbers mishmash unique is throw in some religion — the “straight” guy is a Mormon missionary.
The writer/director is C. Jay Cox (writer of “Sweet Home Alabama”), himself a former Mormon and missionary. If “Latter Days” actually examined the dichotomy between religion and homosexuality, or the struggle that gay men with religious backgrounds face in coming to terms with their orientation, then it would have something. But Cox has no interest in examining the Mormon church. He only wants to rail against it. The church and its adherents in this movie are villains, bullies and homophobes, set up not as characters or plot devices, but merely as straw men to be knocked down.
Set in Los Angeles, the film centers on Christian (Wesley A. Ramsey), a shallow party boy who spends his evenings waiting tables at a swanky restaurant and his nights engaging in one meaningless fling after another. Then a quartet of missionaries moves into his apartment complex, and he is smitten with one of them, Aaron Davis (Steve Sandvoss), fresh off the plane from Pocatello, Idaho. After a conversation with his three snarky co-workers, a bet is settled upon: $50 apiece says he can’t get Aaron to have sex with him. Christian, who prides himself on being able to sleep with anyone, takes the challenge.
The best way to get to know missionaries is to claim interest in their message, so Christian sets up an appointment for him and his hag Julie (Rebekah Jordan) to meet with Aaron and his companion Ryder (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). During this discussion, we learn that Ryder is a raging, vicious homophobe, in addition to being insensitive generally, giving his character a grand total of one dimension. (In fact, all of the staunchly homophobic characters in the film are jerks in other regards, too.)
Still, Aaron and Christian are able to strike up a sincere, albeit awkward friendship of sorts, due to Aaron pretty much never being with his companion (a violation of the No. 1 basic missionary rule, though this fact is not addressed). They come very close to kissing in a sequence that came straight from a porn script, in which Christian cuts his leg, faints from the blood, and then must be helped into his apartment and examined — sans pants — by good Samaritan Aaron. The situation is so contrived and absurd that I assumed Christian was faking it all as a means of getting Aaron into his house so he could seduce him. Sadly, he wasn’t faking it, and the movie really expected us to take it seriously.
A kiss eventually does occur, of course, and of course Aaron’s three fellow missionaries walk in as it happens (because of course he wasn’t WITH them, like he was supposed to be), and of course all hell breaks loose. Aaron is sent home from his mission, leading to the sort of scene that usually occurs at the END of romantic films — it’s even set at an airport — but which here occurs at the 55-minute mark. This is the film’s sole innovation, showing the aftermath of the yes-I’m-in-love-with-you, happily-ever-after climax.
In Aaron’s case, the story is far from over when he admits his love for Christian. He has his parents to deal with, conservative Mormons who do not approve of homosexuality even in general terms. Following a night of steaminess with Christian during a layover (as it were) in Salt Lake City, Aaron is excommunicated from the church — his dad is his stake president, too, making it doubly awkward — and sent reeling by his mother’s adamant rejection of him.
The lead performances by Sandvoss and Ramsey are good enough, with Sandvoss believable as a clean-cut, slightly dorky Idahoan and Ramsey equally convincing as a superficial man-whore. Nothing about their relationship is especially creative — they bond by quoting lines from old movies while doing their laundry! — but the two have a certain charm about them, and the film’s target audience of gay men will certainly enjoy their hotel-room scene.
Mary Kay Place is good in a terrible role, that of Aaron’s dreadful mother. Their major scene together, while unfortunately realistic, gives the film a maudlin, melodramatic quality that it didn’t need.
Jacqueline Bisset turns up as the owner of the restaurant Christian works in, and while she is generally a radiant screen presence, her scene of weeping outside a hospital — and being comforted by Aaron — is singularly bad.
In general, the writing is mediocre and the characters stereotypical — of COURSE Christian has a sassy gay black friend who says bitchy things all the time — but there are occasional bursts of comedy and insight.
Now, since I am a Mormon, it is impossible for me not to notice the many incongruities and mistakes Cox perpetrates in depicting missionary work and the church in general. He has managed to make the church look even more intolerant than it is by offering a distorted view of it — a view that most audience members will take at face value, being unfamiliar with the facts.
The scene of Aaron’s excommunication is most telling. As per real life, it consists of Aaron sitting in a room with his stake president and the high council, 12 men called to help govern the affairs of the church in that geographic area. But here the room is dimly lit, with Aaron sitting alone several feet away from the end of the table, with no one to speak in his defense or even provide moral support. His father tells him he is being excommunicated for “the sin of homosexuality,” whereupon all the stern-faced, unsympathetic men file out of the room without a word to him.
In real life, Aaron wouldn’t have been sent home from his mission just for kissing another man, and there certainly wouldn’t have been excommunication proceedings. He’d have been transferred to another area, counseled with and watched closely. But accepting his being sent home, and accepting the subsequent night with Christian, the disciplinary meeting still wouldn’t have gone this way. The room would be brightly lit, for one thing, as such meetings are held in ordinary conference rooms, and Aaron would be seated cordially at the end of the table, not thrust to the center of the room like Sharon Stone in the interrogation scene of “Basic Instinct.” He would have at least his bishop seated next to him to lend support. And if he were excommunicated (rather than a lesser punishment, which is far more likely) for one night of gay sex, it would be for his ACTIONS, not for “the sin of homosexuality.” The church does not teach that homosexuality itself is a sin, but rather the practice of it. If people were excommunicated simply for having the URGE to do things, the church would have no members left.
Do the missionaries in the film ever talk or act like real missionaries? Yeah, once or twice. Ryder says “flip” a lot, which is a Mormon slang term, and the other two missionaries in their apartment engage in a lot of playful fighting and flatulence. But those details are vastly outnumbered by the details that are completely wrong, like Ryder’s declaration, upon being asked by Christian about the church’s stance on gays, that “God hates homos.” (I did laugh, though, at Aaron’s attempt to defuse the situation: “And the French!”)
Cox is allowed some poetic license, of course; he never claimed he was making a documentary. But I have to question his motives. As a former church member, Cox knows how missionaries really talk and act, and he knows how the church really operates. He is skewing the facts either A) because doing so helps his story progress, or B) because he wants viewers to dislike the church as much as he does. I hope it is option A, as that only makes him a bad filmmaker — good filmmakers use the facts of the world as they actually are to tell their stories, and don’t resort to making stuff up — while option B would make him something worse. Intentionally distorting the facts so your opponent looks more evil than he is smells like propaganda — which, again, is Cox’s right as a filmmaker, but which makes him seem like a guy with an ax to grind, not a guy with a story to tell.
To the gay Mormons, semi-Mormons and ex-Mormons who have eagerly awaited this film to see if it would show what it’s like to be secretly gay while serving a mission, I hate to disappoint you, but it barely even tries. There is one very nice moment when Aaron almost kisses Christian for the first time but instead rests his head on his chest, showing a weariness and resignation, and a desire for understanding. And that is it. The subject of Aaron’s shameful secret, his struggle between his religious beliefs and his feelings, is hardly noted thereafter. He does not seem to have a problem ultimately giving up the church, a fact which runs directly contrary to the experience of all the gay Mormons who endure great torment in deciding which path to follow. If Aaron ever believed strongly in the church in the first place, it is not indicated, making me wonder why religion got dragged into this at all. Once again, I can’t help but think Cox invited the church to his party not to see how it would interact with others, but so he could pour pig’s blood on it.
C- (1 hr., 48 min.; )