`Latter Days' is a nice thought badly bungled


March 12, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

With precious few laughs and some harshly jerked tears, Latter Days, the first movie written and directed by the writer of Sweet Home Alabama, C. Jay Cox, starts out as a gay mix of cottage-complex soap opera and workplace dramedy - West Hollywood, 90069 - then turns into a homosexual romantic heartwarmer along the lines of When Harry Met Harry or Sleepless in Pocatello.

Steve Sandvoss plays Aaron, a Mormon from Idaho on a mission to Los Angeles, and Wes Ramsay plays his next-door-neighbor, Christian, a waiter and party animal who tries to seduce him to win a $50 bet and instead falls hard for him. True love won't be denied: It causes Christian to become more Christian and inspires Aaron to embrace his sexuality, no matter what the gay-denying Mormon church will do to him.

Angels in America and this film have put the Mormons' repudiation of homosexuality at the center of the Culture Wars. Madstone Theaters, under pressure from religious groups, canceled the Salt Lake City engagement of Latter Days. Madstone's president, Thomas Gruenberg, contended that he would have stood by the film if it had met his company's definition of "artistic quality and integrity."

Latter Days may be mediocre at best, but it has more quality and integrity than, say, Sweet Home Alabama. The movie isn't quite as simple as that country-adoring, city-deriding idyll. Aaron introduces urban, promiscuous Christian to the joys of romantic love and selfless commitment (Christian even begins delivering meals to a frail AIDS patient) and Christian introduces country mouse Aaron to the pleasures of a diverse metropolis that nurtures alternate communities. It all balances out - albeit, formulaically.

What's wrong with Latter Days is that its banter is pedestrian and its lessons forced. When Christian asks a fellow gay waiter if he believes in God, the man answers, "You mean, other than Madonna?' and the repartee seems so 10 years ago.

Jacqueline Bisset looks lovely and performs with feeling as Lila, the owner-operator of Lila's and employer of Christian and friends. But Cox makes her spout life lessons. "Funny thing about guilt," she tells Christian. "There's nothing so bad that you can't add a little guilt to it and make it worse. There's nothing so good that you can't add a little guilt to it and make it better. Guilt distracts us from a greater truth: We have an inherent ability to heal." Still awake out there?

Aaron and Christian's lovemaking, after an emotional showdown at an airport, is suitably fleshy and tender. But there's a big, indigestible chunk of movie left. You have to witness a Mormon gay-rehabilitation regimen out of A Clockwork Orange, botched communications between L.A. and Pocatello that drive Aaron and Christian to despair (and skeptical viewers to infuriation), and, for contrast, the ups and downs of Christian's best female friend Julie (Rebekah Johnson), a singer-songwriter who pillages her pal's private thoughts for material.

There is a potent moment when Aaron tells his mother (Mary Kay Place) that his homosexuality isn't about what he does but about what he is; to his mother, that's worse, because it's as if her son is cursed. Most of the actors perform with the generalized, surface realism of soap stars, but Place, always an under-used actress, summons a scary sadness that momentarily kicks Latter Days to life.

Latter Days

Starring Steve Sandvoss, Wes Ramsey, Rebekah Jordan, Jacqueline Bisset and Mary Kay Place

Directed by C. Jay Cox

Released by TLA Releasing

Time 108 minutes

Rating Unrated

Sun Score *1/2

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