** [2 out of 4 stars]
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief mild language; 81 minutes; opening today across Utah.
The latest comedy from "The Singles Ward" director Kurt Hale is an uneven buddy movie, showing the wacky misadventures of Mormon home-teaching partners -- one anal-retentive and overzealous (Jeff Birk), the other a football-obsessed slob (Michael Birkeland) -- ministering to reluctant ward families. The gags (involving an overflowing toilet, a disrupted funeral service and a destroyed car) are juvenile and plod on too long. The leads are engaging, particularly Birkeland, who has a goofy, Chris Farley-esque appeal. Hale is showing signs of improvement: backing off the local-celebrity cameos (with the woeful exception of radio personality Jimmy Chunga), taking pains to explain LDS culture to outsiders, and going beyond the green Jell-O jokes to talk about the Mormon faith.
Michael Birkeland, left and Jeff Birk in "The Home Teachers."
THE HOME TEACHERS -- * 1/2 [1.5 stars out of 4] -- Michael Birkeland, Jeff Birk, Elizabeth Sands, Jimmy Chunga, Wally Joyner, Michael Flynn; rated PG (violence, vulgarity); see "Playing at local movie theaters" for theater listings.
That "The Home Teachers" looks and sounds more like an actual film than HaleStorm Entertainment's two other movies is a real accomplishment.
Both "The Singles Ward" and "The R.M." were pretty much amateur hour -- low- to no-budget films filled with out-of-focus shots and fuzzy sound, as well as little plot (truth be told, they resembled filmed "roadshows" more than anything else).
For all its technical achievements, the company's latest -- and least-funny -- comedy makes you yearn for the quaint incompetence of the other two films. It's as if in trying to tell an actual story the filmmakers have taken a large step backward.
And its "homages" to such beloved comedies as "Tommy Boy" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" are too obvious, verging on comedic plagiarism.
The title characters are Greg Blazer (HaleStorm regular Michael Birkeland) and Nelson Parker (Jeff Birk), two LDS Church members who begin butting heads when they're assigned to be home-teaching companions.
That's because they couldn't be more different. Greg would just as soon spend his Sundays in front of the television, watching professional football and eating chicken wings. The gung-ho Nelson -- who's new to the ward -- wants to start their visits immediately.
And to Greg's surprise, his wife (Elizabeth Sands) agrees with Nelson and practically kicks him out the door. (She's basically hoping the experience will do him good.)
But with the first visit, things go horribly awry. As Greg sneaks away to take in some gridiron action, he sets in motion several small disasters that destroy the unfortunate family's home. And things only get worse from there.
The bits cribbed from other movies only make you wish you were watching those instead. And the tonal shift in the film's final third, from slapstick to more saccharine drama, is much too jarring.
The two leads try to make the material better -- even if their efforts are in vain. Birk, whose character looks sort of like Jerry Seinfeld in a Pee-Wee Herman Halloween costume, doesn't overdo it as much as you'd expect. And Birkeland does have a likable, everyman quality that certainly helps.
"The Home Teachers" is rated PG for scenes of comic violence (hunting, vehicular and slapstick), crude humor and sight gags (relating to bodily functions) and scattered use of mild (and creative) profanity. Running time: 81 minutes.
For those of you who've had an unpleasant home-teaching experience, prepare yourselves -- you're about to have another.
I was hoping the makers of "The Singles Ward" and "The R.M." had progressed a little further in their filmmaking skills by now. But this latest release, "Home Teachers," shows one of two things: Either they're getting complacent in their craft, or physical, slapstick comedy is extremely difficult to get right.
Knowing how badly these guys want to improve, I'm going to lean toward the latter.
Greg (Michael Birkeland) goes to his local ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he'd rather be home watching football on Sunday, lounging in his Love Sac (first blatant product placement) and eating chicken wings.
One of the few real laughs in the movie comes when Greg is forced to sit through another mind-numbing priesthood lesson on the values of home teaching. He is chomping at the bit to get home, but the clock on the wall actually appears to be going backward, and the never-ending closing prayer comes out in super slow motion.
Home teaching is the LDS practice of monthly visits to assigned families in the local congregation. It's sort of an inside joke that home teachers wait until the last minute to fulfill their sacred obligations.
A new guy in the ward, Nelson (Jeff Birk), is assigned to be Greg's new home-teaching companion -- and it just happens to be the last day of the month.
Straight-laced and uptight Nelson is eager to meet his new families and shames Greg into leaving his TV, so off they go.
So far, so good. The scenarios up until now seem realistic, and I'm sure LDS Church members will identify.
However, this is where the movie begins to unravel. No sooner do the valiant home teachers begin their visits than things start to happen that defy logic and believability.
Sure, a toilet can overflow, but to pull a wedding dress out of a closet for an emergency mop-up is ridiculous, unless you see it as an opportunity to display your second product placement (Utahweddings.com).
This is where I started thinking I was being used to mop up the mess of this movie and, to add insult to injury, I'm being sold something? No way.
Then the film becomes a blatant rip-off of "Tommy Boy" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" with a silly trip to Vernal -- for a memorial service on Sunday where a stuffed deer head suddenly becomes hollow enough to wear? Cars are crashing with Ken Garff logos pristinely displayed, Ogio gets a plug on the bill of a cap, Red Bull drops by, as well as Krispy Kreme doughnuts -- and I'm sure I missed one or two.
Shame on you, Kurt and company. You had a nice little franchise going here, and you had to ruin it with this schlock.
And getting all warm and fuzzy at the end doesn't save it. I'd rather get daily visits from the worst home teachers in the world than to have to sit through these "Home Teachers" again.
THE FILM: 'Home Teachers'
OUR RATING: * 1/2 [1.5 stars out of 4]
STARRING: Michael Birkeland, Jeff Birk, Elizabeth Sands, Jimmy Chunga and Wally Joyner
BEHIND THE SCENES: Co-written, produced and directed by Kurt Hale ('The Singles Ward,' 'R.M.'). Filmed in Utah.
PLAYING: Layton Tinseltown, North Pointe, Walker 6. Runs 81 minutes.
MPAA RATING: PG
The latest LDS-themed movie, "The Home Teachers," has three things going for it. The first is that it's coming on the heels of the dreadful "Day of Defense," and it would be difficult not to look good compared. The second is actor Michael Birkland, whose comic slacker Chris Farley/Jack Black vibe is the heartbeat of the film. And the third is that "The Home Teachers," in the true Halestorm spirit, has good, wholesome intentions.
But "The Home Teachers" also has a couple of things working against it. One is that the LDS themed market is heavily oversaturated at this point -- everybody involved needs to take a step back and make half as many movies with twice the quality. Another is that this one comes after last year's "The R.M.," which was a marked improvement over Halestorm's first film, "The Singles Ward." But instead of continuing upwards in quality, "The Home Teachers" is a step backwards. And the final disadvantage is that it has no plot.
Home teaching (the practice of LDS Church members going out to visit other members and attending to the needs of their families) has become a heavy burden for Greg (Birkland), who's the type of guy who sneaks issues of Sports Illustrated into church by disguising it as Ensign Magazine.
Greg's also the type of guy who can barely make it through the entire 3 hours of an LDS meeting, and can't stand missing a football game. It's difficult to understand why Greg goes to church at all. But when he's assigned to an annoyingly zealous new home teaching companion named Nelson (Jeff Birk), Greg's all but forced to do his home teaching for the month.
The visits start off with a bang, as Nelson learns his tires gone flat. Undaunted, he changes the tire, and they make their way to their first disastrous appointment, in which a toilet floods and a bathroom collapses in the home of a man who just lost his job. Next they're on their way to Vernal, where they similarly crash a funeral and (pinch me, this is not happening) dance around with a dead body.
With a deer head stuck to his noggin (and this is truly funny) Greg rides home with Nelson, waves idiotically at passing motorists, and attempts to joke with a humorless police officer. After this, the deer head gag becomes dull and forced, and the rest of the film turns into a serious and allegedly touching explanation of how home teaching should be done and why it's important.
"The Home Teachers" is similar to "The R.M." in that it starts out genuinely funny, morphs into fourth-grade style silliness, and awkwardly transitions into an almost somber and serious ending. Its lack of tangible plot is also a huge problem -- we feel more like we're following Greg and Nelson in a haphazard, real-time visit around Utah than taking in an actual story. It also has an almost identical soundtrack to "The Single's Ward" and "The R.M."
But thanks to the talented Birkland, we're somewhat entertained. Thanks to perpetually wholesome director Kurt Hale, the film is appropriate for the entire family, and sports some funny and poignant learning moments.
And fortunately, the buzz surrounding Halestorm's upcoming "The Best Two Years" is very positive. So hopefully with that film Halestorm will prove themselves to be the talented filmmakers they are, with the ability to slow down and focus on quality, not quantity.
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 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. Grade: C-
Rated PG for mild stuff
1 hr., 20 min.
*.5 [1.5 stars out of 4]
Thanks to UtahWeddings.com, Love Sac, Maverik, Lagoon, Red Bull and Cricket -- all of whom receive prominent product placements -- for helping make possible this latest Mormon lollapasnoozer from Kurt Hale (The Singles Ward). Greg (Michael Birkeland) is more interested in football than priesthood meetings; his new home teaching partner Nelson (Jeff Birk) is gung-ho to get all their appointments in on the last day of the month. Thus begins a sort of Saints, Trains and Automobiles -- an attempt at buddy comedy road hijinks full of limp slapstick, whimsical music cues and cripplingly slow pacing buoyed only by Birkeland's game performance. Hale's heart is in the right place with a message of finding balance, but now it's time for him to find a balance between delivering a message and making a movie where the funniest thing isn't how hard he strains to work in a shot of a corporate logo. (NR)
The creators of Singles Ward and The R.M. are at it again with another entry in the LDS film market, this one aptly titled Home Teachers.
If you're familiar with the LDS church, then you're well aware of what the film's title refers to. In this broad (too broad for my taste) comedy, an upstanding and all to eager member of the church teams up with another member who seems to be his polar opposite. While out home teaching, the two men disagree on nearly everything, and before long, they find themselves on one heck of a disastrous road trip. This instantly brought to mind shades of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
It's no surprise that moments of this picture are reminiscent of the works of John Hughes, as writer/director Kurt Hale appears to be a huge fan.
The R.M. was basically an LDS version of Sixteen Candles only nowhere near as funny. While I certainly liked this outing more than Hales' last, it doesn't measure up to Singles Ward, a movie that, while not perfect, I found surprisingly funny. That film had nerve and even had it's central character telling Mormon jokes while performing at a stand up comedy club. I'm not implying that jokes at the church's expense are necessary to appeal to me, I'm merely stating that it's nice, once in a while, to not take things so darned seriously all the time, and Hale does seem to keep this in mind while making these films. He has the good sense to realize that even God has a sense of humor. On the other hand, I get the distinct impression that if a non-member had made any of these pictures, they would be ostracized.
With Home Teachers, Hale plays both sides of the coin. While both central characters are church members, one is very carefree while the other is clearly overzealous. Through their crazy little road trip, they learn quite a bit about each other and their differing opinions regarding their shared religion, be it in quite the obvious fashion.
There are some truly funny moments in this picture. Watching Jeff Birk lip syncing to CD recordings of the scriptures was a hoot, and Michael Birkeland shows true potential for physical comedy. I also liked some of the meaner moments in this picture including a wake gone wack. But for every moment that works are three or four that don't. Comedy is tricky business and there is such a thing as too broad. Many moments (most notably, a sequence in which Birkeland does battle with a clogged toilet), go way over the top. And don't get me started on Home Teachers' production values. It was obviously shot on a shoestring budget, and it shows. I don't mean to suggest that little money necessarily means bad movie. Sometimes, a smart screenplay, strong acting, or a defining tone can make all the difference (see Pi, Boys Don't Cry, or Blair Witch Project). Home Teachers isn't quite strong enough in any of those categories, but it is a harmless exercise in low budget film making.
This movie was made rather quickly, and while it isn't the picture that will take the LDS film market to that next level, it made me laugh more than The R.M. and I have no doubt that church members will get a kick out of the familiar subject matter. With any luck, it will pave the way for stronger pictures with LDS themes such as the terrific Saints and Soldiers, which made it's debut at The Eclipse Film Festival.
Rating: * [1 star out of 5]
I feel oddly swindled by this release. The direct rental market is so rife with misleading marketing and deceptive cover art that I have a honed cynicism in regards to these practices. However I was duped by "The Home Teachers", made all the more worse by whom it was doing the duping. The cover art suggested an unfunny farcical romp -- correct there. The package description alluded to a pair of home teachers who had to hit 100% by the month's end -- benign details that would make sense to only a select group of viewers. But the basis is not made clear until you drop coin on the rental fee, and only then in your home does text appear as a prologue explaining the specifics.
It turns out home teachers are a group of Latter Day Saints members who are assigned a list of fellow parishioners to counsel and tutor in visits, the goal being to fulfill the quota each month. This is a film from Halestorm Entertainment, a detail I should have picked up on, but I still find it remarkable that they would produce an unabashed Mormon production and then resort to duplicity to prod additional rentals. There is no mistaking that this is purely L.D.S. entertainment beyond the storyline as the script is filled with references that are germane to the faith and denizens of the Salt Lake region.
The crux here revolves around two differing personalities paired up for the sake of comedy. During a seminar we greet Greg Blazer, a portly slacker-type father of three (with a blonde wife who is out of his league) who has nothing more on his mind than dashing out of church in a rush to get home and to watch the football game. Also in class is Nelson Parker, a meticulous task master who is... oh forget all that, just call him a nerd. There is little surprise when these polar opposites are teamed to become a new home teaching duo. Greg is surprised though when Nelson elects to commence with their list while there is only one day left in the month, rather than beginning in a few days. He is further annoyed when Nelson shows up at his house just as he settles in to watch football.
After some whining and bickering with the wife Greg is compelled to join Nelson and begin their visitations. From there things devolve into weak attempts at mirth, including toilet humor (literally). At one visit Greg destroys a bathroom, ruins a wedding dress, crashes through the floor, and launches the dinner through the window. As the pair drives off the wife is in the front lawn sobbing -- not for her destroyed home but for the turkey lying in the petunias. The next stop is to a family who is holding a memorial service for a departed family member in Colorado and Nelson declares they have to drive to the location to visit.
During the ride we get inundated with numerous obscurities, some you can follow and others that are plain incomprehensible. During a day dream sequence Greg is celebrating when a sports reporter asks what he is going to do now, and he replies, "I'm going to Lagoon!!" , referencing an amusement park in Utah. During a rest stop Nelson chastises Greg because purchasing food on Sunday is the slippery slope to hell. (I think eating truck stop nachos will give Greg punishment enough.) Of course this ban on purchases also includes gas, which makes taking a road trip ill-advised. One detail that was lost on me was Greg referring to having to take a leak as, "My ceiling tile is chafing." Anyone in Provo who can help me with that one please write.
After more slapstick at the wake our pair is given a deer head to take back with them, leading to rather dubious comedic set ups, starting with being given a deer head. Walking in the woods Greg puts the deer head on his own melon and draws fire from hunters, and another time he is almost run over wearing the trophy. While I kept from unrestrained lambasting of Mormons I couldn't help but become struck by their own broad portrayal of stereotypes. The hunters are typically inbred dolts, and then the guys are picked up by a white trash couple, played for cheap laughs. It gives me the sense of the audio-visual geeks mocking the chess club members.
It was about this point where I figured out what was really grating me about this unfunny attempt. The corpulent trouble maker and the fastidious and stern straight man -- this is the L.D.S. version of Farley and Spade in "Black Sheep". I have to feel there is a problem with a religious backed production that resorts to sophistry in marketing and plagiarism with the script. Those sins are almost as big as the movie is itself.
Rating: *** 1/2 [3.5 stars out of 5] (Audio: B, Video: B+, Features: A)
Michael Birkeland, Jeff Birk. Directed by Kurt Hale. Written by John E. Moyer and Kurt Hale. Produced by Dave Hunter. Released by Halestorm Entertainment. 2004. 82 minutes. Rated PG.
Dolby 5.1, commentary, outtakes, trailers, music video, featurettes.
In the wake of the success of "The Single's Ward," Utah-based director Kurt Hale and his Halestorm team -- including producer Dave Hunter -- have created a virtual cottage industry of Mormon-themed comedies, getting progressively more accomplished and funnier with each film. While it may still take some doing to find a broad crossover audience with these films, being as so much of the humor is rooted in a familiarity with Latter-day Saint culture, most of the humor is extremely accessible to all.
The latest two to make it to DVD are "The RM" (for "Returned Missionary") and "The Home Teachers." In "The RM," "Single's Ward" star Kirby Heyborne plays a faithful LDS missionary expecting to return from his two-year stint and leap right back into life the way he left it. Needless to say, the world didn't exactly stop spinning while he was away, making things just a little bit awkward on the return. It's basically a fish-out-of-water scenario with a twist -- that the pond has changed while the fish was away on dry land. What's refreshing about this, as with all of Hale's films, is the affectionate way he's not afraid to poke fun at his own culture -- neither disrespectful nor mean-spirited, it's nonetheless very funny and never pulls its punches; cultural self-deprecation at its most endearing.
Hale, Hunter and Heyborne unite for a commentary that's more of a jokey reunion to which they allow listeners to tag along. Anecdotes are amusing, but their interplay is priceless. About twelve minutes of deleted scenes are likewise amusing. Another nice bonus is a cast and cameos page that provides bios on the participants, many of whom are increasingly becoming stock players in the Halestorm company. A pair of music videos round out the disc.
"The Home Teachers" is even funnier, an "odd couple" comedy which, by Hale's own proud admission, is basically a Mormon version of "Tommy Boy." But there's more than a good dose of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" thrown in as well. Slobbish Michael Birkeland and nerdy Jeff Birk are paired as the titular home teachers, reluctant companions whose job it is to visit an assigned list of church members each month. Complicating the fact that they aren't exactly a good match, the duo haven't gone their proper visits... and it's the last day of the month. The comedy of outlandish, slapsticky errors that ensues is not only riotously funny, but logistically challenging for a film of this scale. Three behind-the-scenes featurettes and another amusingly conversational commentary with Hale, Hunter and their two stars confirm just how much fun these guys have making these films, but they also point up how efficient and well-managed it all is. Each featurette's fairly short -- four to seven minutes -- but one in particular addresses some of the very impressive "effects" work.
Given the niche audience for these films, it may be hard to find them at a local video store outside of Utah, but for those eager to seek them out regardless, it's worth visiting hstorm.com.
Collector Rating: STRICTLY FOR FANS