Kurt Hale and John E. Moyer are getting better at making films. “The Home Teachers,” their second followup to the huge Mormon hit “The Singles Ward,” is better focused and less chaotic. The useless and embarrassing celebrity cameos are almost gone, and so are the plot tangents. It now seems like they were actually making a movie, rather than throwing a party for all their friends.
Unfortunately, “The Home Teachers,” while more professional in some technical and structural areas, is a wreck in other ways. Hale’s directing techniques are more polished, but his and Moyer’s screenplay borrows too much from other films, suffers from an abrupt change in tone, and, worst of all, ISN’T FUNNY.
As helpfully explained by title cards as the film opens, “home teaching” is the LDS practice of sending brethren around to all the homes in the ward each month to check on the temporal and spiritual welfare of the members. The good home teachers get it done early and have an honest interest in their families’ well-being. The slackers wait until the last day and do it just to appease their supervisors.
Our film opens on the last day of the month. Greg Blazer (Michael Birkeland) is a football dad, barreling out of church each Sunday as soon as the final “amen” is uttered so he can deposit himself on the couch and watch football the rest of the day and ignore his wife and three daughters. Home teaching, we gather, has not been a major concern of his up to this point.
But his newly assigned companion, recent move-in Nelson Parker (Jeff Birk), is far more enthusiastic. Nelson wears a bowtie, carries a Palm Pilot everywhere, and wouldn’t dream of spending the Sabbath watching sports when there’s so much of the Lord’s work to be done. He drags Greg away from the TV and out to visit their three families.
Here the film ceases to be about home teaching, Mormon culture, or even religion in general, and starts being a disaster comedy, with Greg destroying everything he touches and the unflappable Nelson becoming increasing flapped. Situations grow worse and worse, and the results become, at least in theory, progressively funny.
I believe Hale and Moyer have the right idea, using Mormonism as the context of a story rather than the focus of it. Problematically, none of it is funny. They have seen hilarious farcical comedies, obviously, but they don’t seem to understand why they were funny and therefore can’t replicate them.
I could just tell you that most of the comedy in “The Home Teachers” isn’t funny, but that wouldn’t help you. Let me explain why it isn’t funny.
For farce to work, it must obey the basic laws of physics and logic. Farce isn’t where impossible things happen; it’s where IMPROBABLE things happen. The genius of good farce is in the audience’s realization that, while it’s unlikely they’d ever find themselves in that situation, if they DID find themselves there, that’s probably how they’d react, too. Farce creates a new reality, where improbable predicaments arise, but its characters are still bound by the laws of human nature and react accordingly. That’s what makes it funny: the persistence of human nature even in the most bizarre circumstances.
In “The Home Teachers,” many things occur that are simply impossible. To make matters worse, the characters react in ways that fly in the face of all common sense and human nature. Not only COULDN’T we ever find ourselves in that situation, but even if we did, WE WOULDN’T REACT THAT WAY. The humor is lost.
Exhibit A is Greg’s battle with an overflowing toilet in the home of one of his and Nelson’s families. (We won’t address the fact that approximately 1,000,000 movies have already used recalcitrant commodes as a comedy device, and we’re tired of it, even when it’s done right.) It is improbable that the toilet would continue to flow so rapidly and thoroughly, but it’s at least possible. What’s impossible is that a thin stream of water would shoot up from the toilet bowl into Greg’s face. Toilets aren’t made that way; it’s not physically possible for that to occur.
Now, if you were in this situation, you would turn the water off, because you know there’s a knob on the wall behind the toilet that will do that. (Maybe you don’t, but a manly man like Greg surely would.) But Greg doesn’t do that. Instead, he slips and slides around the wet floor, flailing madly in a Chris Farley-ish manner as he does.
Next, he feels it important to soak up all the water with something. He does not grab towels, however, as none seem to be handy. Instead, he takes a wedding dress from the hall closet — a closet that is otherwise completely empty; apparently this is a special closet reserved for wedding dresses only — and uses it as a sponge.
We have already left the realm of probability and human nature, but wait, there’s more. Apparently, this wedding dress is the one the lady of the house wore when she was married, which happened ages ago. But people don’t keep their years-old wedding dresses in the hall closet, and certainly not in new plastic coverings that say “UtahWeddings.com.” They keep them in their attics, in trunks. So not only wouldn’t this wedding dress be available for use in real life, but even if it were, no sane, sober, adult person would use it to mop up toilet water.
Later, Greg and Nelson drive two-plus hours to Vernal, Utah, to attend a memorial service for a relative of one of their families. (No Mormon family would hold a funeral on a Sunday, and no home teacher would drive that far, spur of the moment, to attend, especially if he’d never even met the family.) Predictably, Greg winds up engaged in mortal combat with the dead body (another thing we’ve seen a bit too often in movies, though sadly not often enough in real life), and rather than simply dropping the body or putting it down, he dances around with it draped over him. Meanwhile, two people faint (highly unlikely) and must be taken to the hospital (extraordinarily unlikely).
I could go on listing the impossible events and the unbelievable reactions they inspire, but you get the idea. I suspect the writers thought of amusing end scenarios — mopping up toilet water with a wedding dress; molesting a corpse — and simply couldn’t come up with reasonable avenues of arriving at them.
The film’s third act comes back around to home teaching again, and everyone’s supposed to learn a lesson and hug. The shift in tone is jarring, particularly after an hour of mayhem and hijinks.
I hear the rebuttals already: You criticized “The Singles Ward” and “The R.M.” for being TOO Mormon; now you criticize “The Home Teachers” for not being Mormon enough. But on the contrary, my objection to “Singles Ward” wasn’t that it relied on Mormon jokes; it was that it relied on easy-to-make, obvious Mormon jokes. My criticism of “The Home Teachers” has nothing to do with the type of humor employed. It’s the poor execution of it. Make Mormon jokes, make non-Mormon jokes, make whatever kind of jokes you want. Just make them funny, that’s all I ask.
So yeah, the farce doesn’t work. Is the movie enjoyable? Meh. It didn’t actively irritate me the way “Singles Ward” did, but at least “Singles Ward” made me laugh a few times, amidst the irritation. “Home Teachers” produced hardly a chuckle.
I’m not sure what the appeal would be here. Without the “it’s funny because it’s true” Mormon humor that made the other two films successful, it’s basically just another mismatched-partners/”Tommy Boy”-ripoff/one-thing-after-another comedy. And if that’s what Hale and Moyer want to produce, they’ve got a lot of catching up to do before they’re even close to being competitive with Hollywood.
C- (1 hr., 20 min.; )