** [2 out of 4 stars]
Mormon Cinema doesn't get any more innocuous, or dull, than this.
Rated PG for some thematic elements and mild violence; 92 minutes. Opening today at area theaters.
Movies don't get more lightweight and innocuous than "Baptists at Our Barbecue," an LDS-themed romantic comedy so insubstantial you may forget you saw it by the time you reach the theater parking lot.
Based on the popular Deseret Book title, "Baptists at Our Barbecue" centers on young Tartan Jones (Dan Merkley), a forest ranger who transfers from Provo Canyon - mostly to get away from his matchmaking mom (Jan Broberg Felt) - to an assignment in the small town of Longfellow, nicknamed "Longwinded." Tartan learns from the gossipy town cop, Bob (played by Utah theater stalwart Duane Stephens), that the town is evenly divided between Mormons and Baptists, with each side despising the other.
Tartan, a Mormon who quickly becomes a ranking member of the ward, decides to organize a town barbecue - and does the unthinkable by inviting the Baptists. Meanwhile, Tartan makes time with Charity (Heather Beers), who has returned to town after a bad breakup.
Director Christian Vuissa (who co-wrote with author Robert Farrell Smith and his brother, F. Matthew Smith) stretches the film's small budget without breaking, and he collects a nice assortment of Utah acting talent - from Tony Larimer as the Baptist preacher to Frank Gerrish (best known as the lab rat in a local series of anti-smoking ads) as one of the most vocal Mormons. The leads are sweet and personable: Merkley suggests a less-edgy Bob Saget, while Beers (the star of "Jack Weyland's Charly") is quickly becoming Mormon Cinema's answer to Kate Hudson.
Alas, the script is short on plot originality -- things unfold exactly as you would expect them to, just slower - and in need of a lot more jokes to keep things lively. "Baptists at Our Barbecue" may be a fun time among friends, but there's not much meat on those bones.
BAPTISTS AT OUR BARBECUE - ** [2 out of 4 stars] - Dan Merkley, Heather Beers, Duane Stephens; rated PG (violence, mild vulgarity); see Playing at local theaters for theaters.
The one real disappointment with "Baptists at Our Barbecue" is that it's not funnier.
Technical gaffes aside (hey, it's a low-budget film), "Baptists" is the first LDS-centric comedy that tells a real story and looks like a real movie (aside from "The Best Two Years," which, arguably, isn't strictly a comedy).
In addition, the cast is appealing and genial enough to put a smile on your face.
But a punchier script with more quips certainly would have helped "Baptists" become more than merely a mild diversion, and maybe more than just a local sensation.
"Baptists at Our Barbecue" is based on the popular LDS novel about Tartan Jones (Dan Merkley, from "The Work and the Story"), a single Mormon who's on the cusp of his 30s. To escape marital pressures in Utah County, he's accepted a job as a forest ranger in the tiny community of Longfellow, affectionately referred to as "Longwinded."
Those living in the town are evenly divided over religion. Half the townsfolk are LDS, while the other half are Baptists. And few if any of them get along.
Tartan is doing what he can to change that. At the same time, he's attempting to romance another new arrival, Charity Hall (Heather Beers, from "Charly"), who's a bit leery of Tartan and his attention -- especially since she was burned in a previous relationship.
The film is heavy on supporting characters, including the town's good-natured sheriff (Duane Stephens, of "Benji: Off the Leash"), the ranger whom Tartan replaced (Charles Halford) and Tartan's meddlesome mother (Jan Broberg-Felt), who comes to Longfellow to check up on her son.
The film's tone gets a little too serious in places, and co-screenwriter/director Chris Vuissa allows some scenes to run on a little long.
But he has pulled good performances from his cast; the Utah-based actors are among the film's strongest assets. Merkley and Beers demonstrate believable chemistry, and Stephens is a welcome comic presence (his character deserves more screen time).
"Baptists at Our Barbecue" is rated PG for a couple of scenes of violence (fisticuffs and brawling, done mostly for laughs), some mildly vulgar humor involving bodily functions and use of some creative profanity. Running time: 92 minutes.
Charity Hall (Heather Beers), left, is being romanced by Tartan Jones (Dan Merkley) in "Baptists at Our Barbecue," an LDS-oriented comedy.
Mormon cinema continues to carve out its little niche in the movie industry.
Some films -- such as "God's Army," "Best Two Years" and "Saints and Soldiers" -- deserve a bigger bite; others -- like "Home Teachers" and "Out of Step" -- are more in the nibbler category.
So where would "Baptists at Our Barbecue" fit in?
Let's just say that it offers a healthy appetizer, but then gets carried away and burns the main course, which is too bad.
Tartan (Dan Merkley) is a rarity in LDS circles -- a 29-year-old returned missionary who has never been married. It's not because his meddling mother hasn't tried. The poor guy has been the long-suffering poster boy for "setup dates" and has managed to come up empty.
In hopes of making a fresh start and to get away from the pressures of dear mom, Tartan takes a job transfer with the U.S. Forest Service to a small town outside of Utah.
The mountain village, nicknamed "Longwinded," is inhabited by equal numbers of Baptists and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It appears Tartan will be the symbolic tiebreaker in a religious feud that has created a long and healthy hate between the two groups.
The Baptists are proud of their beautiful chapel and take every opportunity to rub it in their neighbors' faces. The small LDS branch has never had a real building of its own; instead, the group meets in various members' homes.
But the town is in for some changes. A new branch president is called; word's out that there's a double-wide, prefab chapel is in the works; and a lovely, young woman, Charity (Heather Beers), is visiting her aunt following a traumatic breakup with a boyfriend.
It doesn't take long for Tartan to zero in on Charity. I mean, come on -- it's Heather Beers, for heaven's sake! -- a woman like that gets noticed, especially in a one-horse town like this.
Initially, the film showed potential with its cast of quirky characters -- from the good-natured, all-knowing sheriff (Duane Stephens) to the good ol' boys sitting in front of the town's only gas station.
But as time goes on, the whole thing gets silly and strangely dark. For example, someone steals the back half of the new LDS chapel, and the former forest ranger tries to bump off Tartan.
Yet, the real clincher had to be the strange moaning in the mountains that had a miraculous effect on all of the townspeople. Brother! That was ridiculous.
So "Baptists at Our Barbecue" had thoughts of being the LDS equivalent of "Northern Exposure," but instead, it came off more like "Village of the Darned" -- and that just wasn't going to get it done.
THE FILM: 'Baptists at Our Barbecue'
OUR RATING: ** [2 out of 4 stars]
STARRING: Dan Merkley, Heather Beers, Duane Stephens, Mike Christian, Micaela Nelligan, Frank Gerrish, Jan Broberg Felt and Charles Halford
BEHIND THE SCENES: Co-written and directed by Christian Vuissa ('Roots and Wings,' 'Unfolding'). Filmed in central and northern parts of Utah.
PLAYING: Layton Tinseltown, Newgate Tinseltown. Runs 92 minutes.
MPAA RATING: PG
* 1/2 [1.5 stars out of 4]
I'm tempted to apologize to the makers of this latest attempt at Mormon-centric whimsy, because they're taking the brunt of sins committed by others as well, but LDS filmmakers need some tough love. Specifically: If your movie is tolerable only to those who get all the references, it's probably not very good. Based on Robert Farrell Smith's novel, this grueling film finds two new Mormon arrivals in a small mountain town -- 29-year-old single park ranger Tartan (Dan Merkley) and recently-dumped Charity (Heather Beers) -- discovering a tense stalemate between Mormons and Baptists. And maybe we could have gotten a sense of that tension if director Christian Vuissa had spent any time getting to know the Baptist characters. But no, this is just another Mormon inside-joke-a-palooza, full of way too much wooden acting -- even from Charly's Beers, whose interpretation of a heartbroken woman is to have her perpetually casting coquettish come-hither glances at Tartan -- and following the Shakespearean sense of "comedy" by having everybody happily paired off by the end. Maybe it's time for Mormon filmmakers to consider that other definition of comedy -- the one where people say and do amusing things.
There is no reason not to like "Baptists at Our Barbecue," but there's no particular reason to like it, either. It's an amiable film, kind of funny in places, not too irritating when it's not funny, and it passes the time pleasantly (if blandly). It is the very picture of quiet, modest filmmaking.
Based on the light-hearted novel by Robert Farrell Smith, the film is set in the tiny Southwestern town of Longfellow, renamed "Longwinded" by its citizens. There is an ongoing rivalry here between the Baptists and the Mormons, each denomination having exactly 262 members, with the few residents who belong to neither denomination trying to avoid the crossfire. The mutual disliking seems based more on tradition than doctrine; one suspects the Mormons and Baptists in Longwinded have just always not liked each other, and that no one knows why. (It's just as well: If they began discussing actual doctrine, they'd probably like each other even less.)
Into this odd little place come two outsiders. One is Tartan Jones (Dan Merkley), a Provo-bred man who, at 29 and unmarried, is tired of the constant matchmaking attempts of which he is the victim. His mother (played delightfully by Jan Broberg Felt) is the worst offender, and while she hardly cares who he marries (as long as he GETS married), she is concerned that he select the right temple for the ceremony: "I just hope you choose the right one," she says. "Some of them are so boxy." Tartan is a forest ranger, and when a job opens in Longwinded, he transfers immediately to escape the pressures of living in marriage-happy Provo.
The other newcomer is Charity Hall (Heather Beers), whose fiance just dumped her and who has fled to Longwinded to stay with her aunt while she recuperates. Charity and Tartan meet right away and begin to date -- a refreshing surprise, given that most films would try to keep them apart for most of the running time before finally giving in to the inevitable. Their dating is extraordinarily chaste -- they don't even kiss, as far as I can tell -- and they seem perfect for each other insofar as both of them are reserved, mild people. I stop just short of calling them "boring," but I do recall with fondness how vivacious and entertaining Heather Beers was when she played the title role in "Charly" two years ago. Either that was a fluke, or "Baptists" director Christian Vuissa worked hard to tamp her natural enthusiasm down into affable ordinariness.
At any rate, the town has the wacky sorts you expect to find in movies about small towns, as well as the types you find in small LDS communities. Sheriff Bob (Duane Stephens) knows all the ins and outs of everyone's lives; Sister Wingate (Micaela Nelligan) is the self-righteous wife of the LDS branch president; Orvil (Mike Christian), an Indian who lives in a shack on the outskirts of town; and various old men who sit in front of the general store and provide commentary between naps.
The rivalry between the churches comes to a boiling point when half of the new double-wide trailer that serves as the Mormons' meetinghouse disappears, with the Baptists being the only logical culprits. Tartan wants to help the faiths look past their differences and come together in friendship, but the missing chapel isn't going to help much in that regard.
The film is Vuissa's first feature, though he is no stranger to film, having made the lauded religious short "Roots & Wings" and being the founder of the fast-growing LDS Film Festival. His work is careful and methodical (except for the occasional corpse-whose-eyes-open-and-close situation), and that may be the problem with "Baptists at Our Barbecue." The humor comes entirely from the dialogue (which Vuissa adapted for the screen with the author and the author's brother, F. Matthew Smith), and never from the action. Anytime something visual is supposed to be funny, it isn't. The comedy is over-directed, the sight gags awkwardly staged. You can tell Vuissa had a good idea for a funny image, but couldn't come up with a logical way of arriving at it.
Two examples come to mind. First, Charity's ex-fiance shows up at her apartment to apologize, and Charity throws a box of his belongings down at him from the second-story window. There is a shot of the box landing upside-down on the guy's head, which would be funny, except our subconscious is telling us, "Wait a minute, he's standing there looking at Charity. He would have seen the box coming and deflected it." Box on head = funny; box on head illogically ≠ funny.
Later there is a scene where Tartan falls in the mud and is covered in it from head to toe, including his face. Because of this, passersby do not recognize him and he almost gets shot. But wait: If you get mud on your face, you instinctively wipe it off immediately. You certainly don't walk around like that. Mud on face = funny; mud on face for longer than a couple seconds, used to perpetrate another joke ≠ funny.
Still, as I said, some of the dialogue is funny, and the performances are pleasant. It is a decent entry in the Mormon cinema genre, though I suspect it will not be a very memorable one.
Rated PG, mild thematic elements
1 hr., 32 min.
** [2 out of 4 stars] [Graded by] Steve [Salles]
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Frustrated by his mother's attempts to set him up with all the "nice" girls she knows, Tartan, a 29-year-old single Mormon, decides to leave Utah for the very first time. He accepts a forest service position in Longwinded, a town made up of 262 Mormons and 262 Baptists - both groups completely biased against the other - and Tartan is the tiebreaker. Tartan is determined to find a solution to end the hostility between the two groups - especially since Charity, the beautiful visiting niece of a Longwinded resident, is less than eager to make her stay in such a religiously-prejudiced town permanent. Tartan gathers the unwilling Mormons into inviting the Baptists to an "All Faiths" barbecue, hoping to create a sense of town friendship and unity.
In an odd twist of fate, Utah actress Heather Beers was able to give the character Charly (from the movie adaptation of the Jack Weyland book) spunk, personality, and emotional charge. It didn't save the movie, but it made it tolerable.
Beers doesn't pull the same stunt with Halestorm entertainment's "Baptists at our Barbecue." As always, she's as pretty and as charming as one could be in a movie that just doesn't deliver the goods.
The title characters give the impression they were dragged, kicking and screaming, to the set to complete this tedious task. This cast looked, sounded, and moved as though they were all extremely bored. Eyes wandering, voices muttering, and antsy feet shifting throughout the movie, they all but checked their watches every few minutes. Certainly, the actors weren't bad--they were mired by a groggily directed project.
"Baptists at Our Barbecue" was also adapted from a book by author Robert Farrell Smith, whose tale of dueling religions and their stripping of pride in a small town was written for the screen by Smith, director Christian Vuissa, and F. Matthew Smith.
Tartan (played by Dan Merckley) is a nice 29 year old single Mormon. His mother has done everything she can do to remedy the situation, but Tartan just hasn't found the right girl. He's lived in Utah his whole life, and thinks maybe the way to change things would be to move out of town.
So he accepts a forest services position in Longwinded, a tiny town boasting a population of 262 Mormons, 262 Baptists, and a few unaffiliated riff-raff. Tartan can barely hide his dismay at the oddities of the inhabitants of Longwinded. He prays he can find at least one "normal" person here.
His prayers are answered when Charity (Beers), the beautiful niece of a ward member comes to town. She's dealing with the heartbreak of a broken engagement with a flashy guy from back home.
Tartan's determined to do two things while in Longwinded. First, bridge the vitriolic gap between the constantly bickering Mormon and Baptist congregations, and second, get Charity to notice him and, more specifically, to marry him.
It's difficult to believe Tartan is passionate about these pursuits when he seems stifled by a sense of suffocating boredom. But he pulls together enough motivation to organize a controversial community barbecue -- the town's first step toward coming together and becoming true Christians.
The movie is buoyed somewhat by technical competence. It has nice professional production values and fairly smooth direction. But it also behaves very much like a children's movie, it's perpetually bored characters offset only by sporadically extreme, cartoonish behavior.
Pleasant aspects include a steady trickle of subtle humor, Beers' fresh beauty, and Merckley's adorably confused (and did I already mention bored?) face. But Halestorm is going to need to step back and be a little more selective if they want to continue to thrive in the increasingly overburdened market of mediocre LDS films.
The really good ones will stand out; the rest of them (like "The R.M." and "Baptists at Our Barbecue") might unfortunately get overlooked, due to their inability to really say something unique.
After some nice momentum with 'The Best Two Years'and 'Saints and Soldiers,' LDS- produced movies suffer a temporary setback with the silly, caricature-laden 'Baptists at Our Barbecue.'As any ex- Baptist will testify, there's a good story about finding common ground with Mormons hidden somewhere in this painful adaptation of Robert Farrell Smith's novel. We at first question how handsome Latter-day Saint Tartan (Dan Merkley) could remain a bachelor until the "mature" age of 29 years. But as we follow the never-left-Utah park ranger to a job transfer to a small town in Arizona we quickly get a clue. He's boring as all get out. His soul mate appears in the form of Charity, played by actress Heather Beers, who brings the same somnambulistic presence that she displayed in 'Charly.' The townspeople are not lovably quirky but repugnantly obnoxious. It's as if the primary objective was inoffensiveness-- everyone is universally dimwitted. The 4th grade level of humor on display here makes the charmingly goofy 'Napoleon Dynamite' seem positively Shakespearean by comparison.