Overanxiously Engaged, or “What’s Mormonism Got To Do With It?”

10.25.07 | | 13 comments

Tyler Ford’s Anxiously Engaged: A Piccadilly Romance and an examination of the intrusion of Mormonism in Mormon Cinema.

“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” Carl Gustav Jung

Upon initial viewing, Tyler Ford’s Anxiously Engaged: A Piccadilly Romance (2005) is a difficult film to classify in the academic sense as it suffers from a number of idealogical flaws. The purpose of this piece, therefore, is to investigate the symptoms in an attempt to isolate and identify the central malady.

The story focuses on a young Mormon named Carson Welles (Jaelan Petrie), a ranch-raised Montanan working at an international beef company in the heart of far away London. The film begins when Carson’s engagement to Lucy Armstrong (Katie Foster-Barnes) is derailed when her grandfather (James Green) refuses to give his blessing unless Carson first finds a husband for Lucy’s older sister, Jema (Sophie Shaw). Carson’s attempts to set Jema up with a suitable suitor meet with continual disappointment until he introduces her to his supervisor, Nigel Backman (Tom Butcher). While sympathetic at first, Nigel’s motives for dating Jema seem to be rooted in his overarching scheme to embezzle the company, which happens to be owned by Lucy and Jema’s grandfather (it’s never made clear what the embezzlement scheme has to do with Jema). Eventually, Nigel frames Carson for the crime, which leads to a showdown in which Carson proves his innocence and finally marries the right girl.

The title is itself an unwitting invocation of what turns out to be perhaps the film’s primary ailment. The double entendre is, of course, descriptive of the predicament in which Carson finds himself. Engaged but unable to marry, he is certainly anxious. But the Mormon audience will unmistakably recognize the term from LDS canon.

“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness…” Doctrine and Covenants 58:27

This throws the story into something of a new light as Carson is understood to be anxiously engaged in the good — indeed righteous — cause of finding Jema a husband. Clearly, scratching at this conceit unearths the smell of Mormonism. To a culture that idealizes marriage as much as Mormonism, matchmaking may very well strike one as a good turn. If there’s joy in bringing converts into the waters of baptism, how much greater must the joy be in bringing them into the bonds of matrimony? For this reason, more than any other, Carson begins to question his testimony. “Sometimes” he confides to his secretary, Alice (Gwyneth Powell),” I feel like everything I’ve been taught is a lie.” Yet at this point in the film, Carson’s only real conflict is brought on by his inability to introduce Jema to a decent marriage prospect, let alone marry her off. It’s curious that something as alien to Mormon doctrine (and practice) as matchmaking, in effect, should cause such a grievous crisis of faith. This is but one instance in which a Mormon cultural ideal (if it can indeed be called that) takes precedence over Mormon doctrine within the film’s subtext.

The film also features the blithely repeated but decidedly non-Mormon mantra, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.” This is not a foreign concept to Mormon media. Saturday’s Warrior (Bob Williams, 1989) contained the subplot of two premortal lovers pledging to find each other on earth and eventually doing so. Like much of America, Mormon culture embraces the notion of fatalistic romance, despite the absence of such from Mormon doctrine. For this reason, it seems odd to find a genre so steeped in the doctrines of fate as romantic comedy to be as readily and prevalently available as it is in Mormon cinema, especially given the prominence with which the faith treats the subject of agency.

Yet it is precisely because the film is a romantic comedy that the audience is expected to forgive its predeterminism. Rom-com is the capstone genre of omniscience. Matchmaking can’t be bad if all it’s doing is ushering along a predestined — let alone righteous — conclusion. In fact, as long as God’s predetermined will is met, matchmaking must be a heavenly endeavor. Ford (and co-writers Petrie and Scott K. Brown) cements the concept with Lucy’s subplot. Lucy’s character is far from evil, imperfect primarily for the fact that she’s not being the girl Carson “can’t help [but] fall in love with.” Ford makes her obliquely shallow, backhandedly accepting Carson’s proposal, and committing the Mormon cardinal sin of under-appreciating the solemnity of marriage. Towards the end of the story, Ford dismisses the potential conflict between the two sisters by having Lucy back out of the engagement. Responding to Carson’s assertion that she’s too posh to survive a mission, Lucy does just that. But before she goes, she commits one final, redeeming act of goodness: She encourages Jema to marry Carson. Her righteous act of matchmaking serves as the proof that Lucy is indeed worthy to serve the Lord.

Any defense of Ford’s choice to glorify matchmaking by hearkening to such matchmaking classics as William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Jane Austen’s Emma is undermined through comparison to those exact works. In Anxiously Engaged, it is Lucy who more closely resembles Shakespeare’s Kate, criticizing Carson’s proposal and belittling his cowboy dress. Jema, on the other hand, is as mild-mannered and sweet as Taming’s Kate is wild and shrewish. In this case, the shrew Carson must tame is Lucy and he does so by not marrying her. This seems like a decidedly Mormon reinterpretation. From a cultural standpoint, what could be more taming to a young LDS woman than being refused marriage? Likewise, Austen’s Emma is a selfish character whose machinations into the love lives of others lead her on a path of remorse, epiphany, and eventual maturity. In contrast, Ford’s characters are rewarded in their matchmaking efforts. Carson finds the “right” girl while Lucy makes herself worthy for service in the mission field.

Even the film’s climax delivers a uniquely “popular” ideal that stands in contrast to Mormon principles. When Nigel frames Carson for embezzlement, Carson protests all the way to the slammer, claiming that he can prove his innocence. But when a mysterious benefactor bails him out, Carson snugs his cowboy hat onto his brow and immediately tracks down Nigel for a physical confrontation outside of the law. This proof of innocence steers much closer to the iconic vigilantism of Hollywood cinema rather than the law-abiding principles espoused by the LDS Church, especially as it invokes the classic Western imagery of earthy cowboy vs. foreign cattle baron. Carson’s legitimate innocence is later offered to the authorities in a manner that suggests it was available all along, making the confrontation utterly moot. Why was it therefore included? Probably because it was assumed that the audience wanted a good guy vs. bad guy showdown, even if it wasn’t crucial. But just like the aforementioned symptoms, while this conclusion may be wanted, it is far from “Mormon.”

But if the ideologies of matchmaking, fatalism, and vigilantism are only symptoms of the problem, what is the problem itself? The answer is obvious. The problem is Mormonism.

The problem with Mormon cinema is that it seeks the critical legitimacy of popular cinema while firmly decreeing its “Mormonness.” The simple fact that escapes many Mormons — and it’s reflected in Mormon cinema — is that Mormons are not normal people, as defined by popular culture.

Popular culture has established a particular template for “normal” and anything outside of that template, in terms of story, cannot exist without a reason for doing so. Typical film reality takes it even further. The notion that good guys always win, that spies are always beautiful, or that promiscuous women must be punished with death in slasher flicks are all part of the established template for story reality as defined by popular culture. Granted, this template shifts with time. Good guys smoke nowhere near as much as they did in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Happy endings don’t involve marriage nearly as much as they used to.

But, by and large, exceptions to the rule are the rule in story telling because they add meaning. For example, in a film wherein the main character is clearly defined as a homosexual, the audience will assume that the character’s sexuality has a significant bearing on the story and interrogate the meaning of that choice. As viewers, we don’t question it when a character imbibes in alcohol. That’s because normal people – as defined by popular culture – enjoy a drink from time to time. As viewers, we may lament lasciviousness in the media, but we don’t question it within the context of story. That’s because normal people – as defined by popular culture – engage in pre-marital sex. Think about it. If you watched a movie in which a character was saving him or herself for marriage, you may find that refreshing, but you would also want to know why. Is it a religious choice? Does this person believe in a particular kind of love? Is popular culture a turn-off? You would want the meaning. Why? Because it’s outside the template of “normal” for characters in modern storytelling to make that choice, just as it’s outside the template for characters to be gay. The same holds true for Mormonism. If a Mormon character exists within a film, it means that Mormonism is somehow relevant. The Word of Wisdom, eternal marriage, Joseph Smith, missionary service… viewers will search for that aspect of the religion, existing beyond the cultural pale, that made it impossible for the story to be about anyone other than a Mormon.

Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993) told the story of a kidnapped boy who develops a close bond with his captor as they flee the authorities in 1960s Texas. The film begins on Halloween with the young Phillip pining to join the other children as they engage in trick-or-treating. But his mother’s staunch observance of their religion — Jehovah’s Witness — prevents him. Later, rather than go free, Phillip chooses to steal a ghost costume from a department store and continue traveling with the escaped convict Butch (played by Kevin Costner). When Butch finds out that Phillip has never gone to the circus, eaten cotton candy, or trick-or-treated because of his religion, Butch is shocked. “You know, Phillip,” Butch says with conviction, “you have a [explicative] red, white and blue American right to eat cotton candy and ride roller coasters.” He stops their flight long enough to take Phillip to a house where, at gunpoint, he provokes the hapless owner into providing the double service of provisioning their trip and fulfilling Phillip’s fondest wish. In the film’s tragic climax, a dying Butch agrees to release Phillip on the condition that his mother take him trick-or-treating every year, let him eat cotton candy, and drink beer when he’s older. “My mama’s not bad!” Phillip sobs. “She gives me those things.” Butch gently rebukes him. “Don’t kid a kidder, Phillip.” As in Anxiously Engaged, the character’s religion is identified from the beginning. But in A Perfect World, Phillip’s religion serves as a major part of the foundation of the surrogate father/son relationship, granting a bittersweet subtext to almost every scene.

Even when identity is intentionally discarded, as it is in Suture (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 1993), it is in no way disregarded. The very simple premise revolves around twin brothers who find themselves reunited after being separated at birth. Vincent (Michael Harris) has lived a lavish, albeit underhanded life while Clay (Dennis Haysbert) is a simple construction worker. In order to escape his extra-legal entanglements, Vince duplicates himself by disguising Clay and subsequently sending him off in a car that’s been rigged to explode. But Clay survives, and as doctors try to piece his amnesiac life back together, he is lead to believe that he is, in fact, Vincent. In the end, the real Vincent returns to finish the job and is killed by Clay, who casts aside his remembered identity in favor of his brother’s. With that explanation, it would seem that the film is an exploration of class issues. The reality is that the film is actually about race. Michael Harris is a white man while Dennis Haysbert (24‘s President David Palmer) is decidedly black. As characters ignore the obvious difference between the “twins,” the audience is forced to confront the absurdity of colorblindness. In Suture, identity, though ignored, is still everything.

The final example is one of romantic comedy’s very own. In Keeping The Faith (Edward Norton, 2000), Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller) and Father Brian Finn (Norton), are divided by the return of their childhood friend Anna (Jenna Elfman) into their sanctimonious lives. Each carries a torch for Anna, and each is equally torn over her; Jake because she’s not of his Jewish faith and Brian because of his Catholic vow of celibacy. The delicious irony of this setup is that both Catholicism and Judaism move in and out of pop culture’s parameters for “normal” at their leisure (meaning that characters in movies can be Catholic or Jewish without a meaningful reason for being so). But in this case, the film uses the particularities of each religion’s dogma to establish and develop the plot.

And therein lies Anxiously Engaged’s fatal flaw. At no point is Mormonism ever significant to the plot. In fact, the film overcompensates, trying so hard to render Mormonism “normal” that it confuses the average viewer by delivering a Mormonism that ultimately doesn’t matter. The result is a film full of scenes that depart from the plot in order to casually explain Mormonism. In one scene, Carson is compelled to stay overnight in a Scottish pub. While there, the locals watch a soccer match on television and celebrate a goal scored against England by singing their national anthem. Carson tells the barkeep that the LDS church has a hymn with the same tune, then sings the lyrics to “Praise to the Man” underneath the Scottish patriotic swell. But at no time does the significance of this hymn, or indeed Joseph Smith, come to bear. Does it exist to bolster Carson’s faith? Resulting scenes provide no answer.

In another scene, Nigel comes to church on a day when Jema is teaching Sunday School. As the only church scene in a film where Mormon characters feature prominently, it figures to be significant. Jema asks Nigel to read from the religion’s signature book of scripture, the Book of Mormon.

“Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.” Alma 48:17

As with the Scottish pub scene, the payoff from this scene never arrives. Who is Moroni? Why is it significant whether or not men are like him? What about him would cause the powers of hell to be shaken? The film never provides the meaning because in Mormon culture, it doesn’t have to. Thus, what could be poignant is now pointless.

Yet another scene stands apart from the rest of the film. After Carson is framed for embezzlement, he is taken to a holding cell where he’s incarcerated with a potentially violent jail mate of dubious mental stability who screams continually about England’s “proper laws.” Ford’s directing deviates from the established course with hand-held cinematography, choosing to have the characters now look directly into the camera (a choice eschewed at any other point in the film). Given the light-hearted context surrounding the rest of the film, the scene is mildly unnerving. When Carson is released on bail, he urges the jail mate to call the missionaries. The jail mate, much calmer now, promises to do so, even going so far as to sit back into a beam of sunlight and profess to see the light.

The humor notwithstanding, the purpose of the scene — and in particular, the jail mate — is not immediately apparent. Why is Carson sharing the gospel? At no time in the film up to this point (the act three turning point, no less) has the notion of sharing the gospel been addressed, let alone had any bearing on the story. It may be important to Mormonism, but it’s not important to the film. Here, again, Mormonism intrudes on the film as the story literally pauses to allow the audience to see a slice of LDS culture that has heretofore been irrelevant. The proof comes later, when the jail mate shows up at Carson and Jema’s secular wedding questioning why they can’t be married in the temple. Alice curtly explains that in England, the state only recognizes civil marriages and that the temple wedding will be held later. The man’s features light up with discovery as he excitedly exclaims, “Proper laws!” The payoff, indeed the reason for the character’s very existence is not to add anything of significance to the plot or support the development of the main characters, but simply to explain to the audience the peculiarities of certain Mormon marriage practices.

And this is ultimately the final diagnosis for that which plagues the film. The advancement of the non-LDS concepts of matchmaking and fate combined with the fact that Mormonism shows up at the expense of the plot lead one to the inevitable conclusion that the film’s ailment is the very religion that the filmmakers would like to propagate. Understand that this doesn’t mean that the film vilifies Mormonism. It simply means that Mormonism simply doesn’t belong in the film.

“The writer can choose what he writes about,” said Flannery O’Connor, “but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” Ford, for all his probable good intentions, has cobbled together pieces of Mormonism in an effort to pay homage to his religion, but failed to give those pieces any meaning. And a story without meaning is merely a body without life.

13 comments: “Overanxiously Engaged, or “What’s Mormonism Got To Do With It?”

  1. Todd Wood

    Wow, this is the first time that I have read such an in depth review for a flighty LDS chick flic.

    But saying that, Eric, you have me hooked. Now, I will be more interested in your future reviews than even the LDS films I watch.

  2. William Morris

    This is why we pay Eric the big bucks. He was the largest free agent signing in the Bloggernacle because no one else was willing to take on the task of providing smart analysis of these particular Mormon cultural products. ;-)

  3. William Morris

    Also — I deem this line an instant classic:

    “If there’s joy in bringing converts into the waters of baptism, how much greater must the joy be in bringing them into the bonds of matrimony?”

  4. marcus

    Hey Eric, great post! I stumbled across it on the Planet LDS site. Isn’t “Mormon” Cinema by definition bad? If it were good would it need to be categorized as “Mormon” Cinema, wouldn’t it just be accepted as Cinema. It’s much like Christian Rock. None of the really good rock bands, like U2 and Live, are categorized as Christian rock; they’re just rock bands. The cover themes that are markedly Christian, but present them in a way that can be appreciated universally.

  5. pooka

    “In fact, the film overcompensates, trying so hard to render Mormonism ‘normal’ that it confuses the average viewer by delivering a Mormonism that ultimately doesn’t matter. ”

    That’s huge. I think that’s what bothers me about most Mormon media.

    I’ve been going about everything all wrong.

  6. Gideon Burton

    A meaningful analysis that I appreciated. Mormons are young in figuring out how to figure their religion cinematically, and I think we need to cut filmmakers some slack, but I also think we need to hold them responsible and Eric’s criticism does so fairly and interestingly. Please keep up the reviews! Also, I must disagree with marcus. It’s glib to say “Mormon Cinema” is by definition bad, but that is neither accurate nor helpful. The most successful universal works of art work through a fidelity to the particular. Those films that sacrifice their ethnic or religious identity to attempt broader appeal (The Other Side of Heaven…) end up cutting away the greater source of their power. Perhaps that is why I’m less bothered by failed attempts at integrating explicit Mormon content or themes; at least Tyler Ford is not shying away from his religion, even if he may not have found the perfect formula…

  7. Tyler Ford

    Thanks for the review Eric. I enjoyed for the most part reading through it. It has to be the most complete review I have found.

  8. marcus

    Gideon, I’m afraid I didn’t explain the distinction I see between Mormon Cinema, and Mormon themed Cinema.

    As I see it Mormon Cinema is a sub-classification that says more about the intended audience than it does about the content of the film. These films are marketed primarily towards Mormons and rely on the small niche market to see them either because of the novelty of seeing someone like them on screen, or as a type of charity towards a fellow Latter-day Saint. These films are about the same quality/mentality as the average sitcom, using caricatures and stereotypes instead of developing characters with any real depth. Films like this resemble a long inside joke that non-members, and even members outside of Utah just don’t get.

    Mormon themed cinema, on the other hand, would be intended for a much broader audience and would be marketed as such. It would use cultural and religious themes unique to the LDS faith to express something that can be appreciated by someone outside the faith. The characters are well developed with a depth that goes beyond what most people know about their faith.

    I don’t think that films by or about Mormons or Mormon themes are necessarily bad. I just think that the term “Mormon Cinema” has negative connotations, and any good film that might be classified as such, would eschew such a categorization.

  9. Eric Thompson Post author

    I would like to thank everyone for their posts. I would also like to make it known that while certain observations may be humorous, it is never my intention to belittle a filmmaker or his/her film or beliefs. To this end, I appreciate that Gideon recognized the difficult balance that I try to strike in every post.

    I have yet to come to any concrete conclusions about the meaning of “Mormon Cinema.” I’ve spotted some trends, but I can’t say one way or the other if the label is bad. In keeping with Marcus’s Christian Rock example, I personally find it interesting that bands such as Goo Goo Dolls, Creed, and Evanescence seemed to take a substantial dip in popularity when the very obvious Christian themes within their music were “outted” (my casual observation).

    That said, there’s only one thing that I think is concretely true about Mormon cinema. As they say in politics, the honeymoon is over. I believe that recent box office numbers indicate that the novelty of the “LDS film” has worn off. Mormons don’t seem to be watching films simply because they were made by Mormons or are about Mormons or Mormon beliefs. Whether this is because audiences have lost faith in LDS filmmakers (as Chris Heimerdinger suggests), or the competition from entrenched entertainers such as Disney is too formidable, or some other reason, I can’t say. One way or another, the message seems to be that ours is a religion, not a club.

    However, I agree with Gideon. Tyler Ford, Kurt Hale, Richard Dutcher and others deserve praise for setting out on newborn legs. If I ever become famous, it will be because I watched and learned from the mistakes that they had the courage to make. As any parent can tell you, just because something this young makes this kind of noise, doesn’t mean that it’s broke. It simply means that it needs to be changed.

  10. Eric Russell

    Great review, Eric. I agree. In fact, my first thought after seeing it was that the screenplay was originally written without any Mormonism at all and only tacked on later (perhaps to sell the film to investors?). It’s kind of funny, there have been discussions in the past about films that felt Mormon yet had no LDS references. This film is an odd case of the contrary, a film full of references that somehow doesn’t feel Mormon at all.

  11. Randy Astle

    Great review, Eric, and I too appreciate the balance and empathy in the comments. To answer Eric Russell, however the film turned out the screenplay did not progress from secular to Mormon. It was Tyler’s intention from the get-go to make something thoroughly LDS, in contrast to some of the watered down films that we’d seen in 2003-04. He had difficulties in doing so along the way, as every filmmaker does, and he did take the non-Mormon audience into account, but his goal was first and foremost to serve the LDS community.

    I enjoy the entire movie, some parts more and some less, but in multiple viewings I have been struck with one scene, which is that in which Lucy opens her mission call. It’s a single moment within the film’s overall wrapping-up process, yet I find it extremely powerful. In wondering why this is so, I realized that this is the single moment in which Mormonism does completely and utterly matter to the plot. This is an authentic LDS experience, not just a glib moment tacked on to resolve her character; I was struck by the thought that her progression as a character not only covers the greatest distance but is perhaps the most deeply Mormon-centric–and hence to me poignant–arc in the entire film. In the end what I think that means, for better or worse, is that Tyler had an incredible story, but he just might have made it about the wrong person. Still, that’s a phenomenological reading of how I personally responded to the film, and other viewers are likely to have experienced it differently.

    In any case, I feel to praise any LDS filmmaker who undergoes the struggle to release a Mormon film, and any critic who takes the time to give it as thorough an analysis as this.

  12. Anneke Majors

    Thanks for the thoughtful review, Eric. I saw this DVD for sale last time I was in Utah and felt a little off-kilter about the film after reading its synopsis. I think what made me the most uncomfortable at the time, shallow as it is, was the film’s title. Being anxiously engaged in a good work is such a profound and important gospel principle to me that it troubled me to see it cheapened for the obvious Mormon culture pun.

    After reading your review, I realize that this is indicative of the entire film’s attitude. It’s all too common in “Mormon cinema” – we’re going to try to explain and showcase a peculiar people while never holding sacred the very sacred things that make us who we are. This is, I believe, the defining characteristic: LDS artists who recognize and prize the sacredness of the restored gospel will produce art that is compelling and universal, just as the gospel itself is. Artists who are motivated by commercial, cultural, or avant-garde ideals (though I am certainly not commenting on the artists’ personal testimonies) will never manage to communicate what is most basic and beautiful about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>