Last year, a frizzy-haired dork named Napoleon Dynamite did what many Utah filmmakers have tried to do for five years: break into the mainstream.
This fall, a new crop of Mormon Cinema titles will try to cross over and find non-Mormon audiences - and the director who started the boom is determined to do it his way.
"I'm in no way stepping away from Mormonism as a center, as an anchoring element," said Richard Dutcher, who blazed the trail for Mormon Cinema with his 2000 hit "God's Army."
"I'm not in any way trying to genericize the Mormons," Dutcher said. "The challenge I'm kind of playing with right now is making it deeply Mormon, but at the same time accessible basically to everybody."
Dutcher is back with "States of Grace: God's Army 2," which opens in Utah theaters in October or November. Meanwhile, the fish-out-of-water comedy "Mobsters and Mormons" hits screens today, and "The Work and the Glory: American Zion," the second installment of the historical epic set against the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be released Oct. 21.
In "Mobsters and Mormons," a New Jersey mafioso is put in the witness protection program and relocated with his family to a Utah County neighborhood. Culture-clash comedy ensues.
"I think it's a funny movie," said actor Mark DeCarlo, who plays the mafioso. "It's weird to see a Mafia guy from New Jersey who never swears. But once you get over that, it gives you a potentially broader base of people who can see the movie. . . . I don't think it matters what particular stripe your faith is."
The movie's writer-director, John E. Moyer, made his name co-writing "The Singles Ward," an LDS-themed comedy that took in $1.2 million at the box office.
For his directing debut, Moyer said, "I was going to do something that wasn't LDS at all. Some of the money people I talked to liked the fact that we kind of had a track record, that the stuff that we did had made a profit for investors."
"Mobsters and Mormons," Moyer said, was an effort to "find something that would appeal to LDS audiences, but also possibly be able to spill over outside of the LDS market - that there were no inside jokes that if you weren't LDS, you weren't a home teacher or an elder, you wouldn't get. I tried to steer away from that stuff consciously, and tried to find stuff that would play off of the world's generalized concepts of what Mormons are."
Part of that spillover comes from hiring a lead actor whose face is known outside Utah. DeCarlo is host of the Travel Channel's "Taste of America" and is the voice of Hugh Neutron, the clueless dad on Nickelodeon's "The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron." And DeCarlo made his reputation as host of the '90s dating game-show "Studs." ("I get recognized for that every day, you know, and it's been off the air for 10 years," DeCarlo said.)
"Mobsters and Mormons" isn't the only upcoming movie in the Mormon Cinema genre to draw Hollywood actors. The comedy "Suits on the Loose," due out next spring, has in its cast Fred Dryer ("Hunter") and Charles Napier (a regular in Jonathan Demme films, including "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia"). Another comedy coming next year, "Church Ball," lured Fred Willard ("Waiting for Guffman") and Gary Coleman.
Casting familiar Hollywood faces, Moyer said, "is some type of a validation, that it's not just some local Payson Players Theater guy. . . . [Audiences] may take the film more seriously, maybe give it more credence."
Dutcher isn't so sure. Even with familiar non-Mormon actors, Dutcher said, some LDS filmmakers have "this deluded sense of making a film that would only appeal to Mormons, but somehow believing it's going to cross over into the mainstream."
The other unwelcome trend, in Dutcher's view, involves films that are sold to investors as LDS-themed, but "by the time the movie gets to the market, you can't really recognize any Mormonism in it - and still calling it a Mormon film just because Mormons make it."
Dutcher vows that won't happen with "States of Grace."
"It's not another treatment of a day in the life of LDS missionaries," Dutcher said. "This time, it's LDS missionaries who are part of a much larger story. It's more of an ensemble film that has characters from different religions, and no religions, and how their lives intertwine in present-day Santa Monica. . . . It's very much designed not to just be accessible to Mormon Christianity, but hopefully embraced by all Christians."
Dutcher makes one concession to the mainstream market: "We're trying to not label it outside of Utah as 'God's Army 2' - hopefully draw some interest from people who didn't see the first one," he said.
But before the country sees "States of Grace," moviegoers will see the pride of Brigham Young University, "Napoleon Dynamite" star Jon Heder, in his first Hollywood role. Heder plays as a dude-speaking psychic who acts as intermediary between a ghost (Reese Witherspoon) and a guy (Mark Ruffalo) in the romantic comedy "Just Like Heaven."
The success of "Napoleon Dynamite," directed by former BYU student Jared Hess and laced with oblique references to Mormon culture, is good news for Mormon Cinema, Moyer said.
"It basically says there is a talent pool around here of people who can pull this stuff off," he said.
Dutcher said he has seen audiences in Utah and in Burbank, Calif., react differently when seeing Heder in the "Just Like Heaven" trailer.
"When people saw him here in Utah, I noticed a couple of people say, 'Oh, look who it is,' " Dutcher said. "When I was in Burbank and I watched it, as soon as his name came up, there seemed to be this widespread delight that he was in this movie. . . .
"I think that's great for Mormon Cinema, because people know that he's Mormon. That rubs off."
BREAK INTO THE MAINSTREAM
Mormonism may be at the center of the following movies, but directors hope their films will find non-Mormon audiences by taking out direct references and inside jokes only practicing members would understand.
* "Mobsters and Mormons"
Opens today. Stars Mark DeCarlo, host of the Travel Channel's "Taste of America."
* "The Work and the Glory: American Zion"
Opens Oct. 21. The second installment of the historical epic set against the founding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
* "States of Grace: God's Army 2"
Opens Oct. - Nov. Latter-day Saint missionaries are part of a larger story set in Santa Monica with characters from different religions and that have no religion.
* "Suits on the Loose"
Opens next spring. Members of the cast include Fred Dryer ("Hunter") and Charles Napier (a regular in Jonathan Demme films, including "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia").
* "Church Ball"
Opens next year. Fred Willard ("Waiting for Guffman") and Gary Coleman are part of the cast.
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