Two years in the life of Mormon missionaries romanticizes their clean-cut appeal
It's possible to imagine The Best Two Years, the new feature-length film about Mormon missionaries at work in Holland, becoming a cult classic. It's as relaxing as Valium, and Valium for the soul is what the young Elders who star in this movie are offering the Dutch-landers they seek to convert. Their opening solicitations are cut from the same simplistic, apocalyptic cloth as the Jehovah Witnesses' Watchtower pamphlets: Are you lonely, unfulfilled? Would you want to know if God's Prophet were here on earth now? (I, for one, would not. It hasn't been that long since I moved out of my parents' house).
The film is overtly modeled on the Beatles' classic A Hard Day's Night, from the four quirky-yet-square protagonists to the long, stop-motion musical montages that move the plot along at key intervals. (Weirdly, one of the promo posters and a scene are a direct rip-off of the famous Abbey Road album cover. Perhaps the Mormons have taken Paul and John for Prophets?) The original music by Scott and Michael McLean is catchy, too, in particular the opening song with charming self-effacements such as "in my very best suit from Sears" and a couple of Blues Traveler-esque numbers farther along. Throw in a few jokes about sharing a bathroom in a run-down Dutch flat, a couple of language-barrier gags, and a newcomer so nerdy he makes Pat from Saturday Night Live look suave, and you have one polished, earnest effort to present "Mormon Missionaries as Regular Guys."
That last word is the sticking point, of course, for approximately 50 percent of the population. This film is a religious version of the old Rat Pack vehicles, which romanticized a sexist, womanizing lifestyle. It's momentarily entertaining to watch Elder Van Pelt (Hopkin) moon over the perfumed letters he receives from three Breck girl candidates back home. Before the film is over, not one, but two of the boys' hearts will be broken because their betrothed married another missionary who reached the two-year finish line first. It's all very World War II, but the '50s-era TV glow fades when you recall that some of these women may have actually taken "university" classes such as "Long Hair Care," and that their role is entirely secondary to their male counterparts. A late-night visit from the officious, scripture-prescribing President Sandburg (Flynn) drives home the point: This is a man's world.
The four actors with the thankless job of portraying two-dimensional nice guys acquit themselves well. They humanize the anachronistic strangers seen peddling their bikes in suits and ties on unlikely streets throughout the world. Elder Rogers is touchingly fallen without overplaying the cynicism. Elder Van Pelt, although I doubt the film's developers will admit it if it's not simply Freudian, is the gay stand-in: He grooms like a Ralph Lauren model and will not abide a dangling participle. The personalities are as carefully assembled as the Monkees, and it is an effective (probably not unintentional) retort to John Krakauer's recent exposé, Under the Banner of Heaven: If we're going to lump those nice LDS boys in with the polygamists, shouldn't we hold the Catholic Church equally culpable for Opus Dei?
Endearing though the four Elders are, this is a conversion film. It gets boring not long after the second epiphany if you're not becoming a believer, too. That may not be a sin in Salt Lake City, but in Tinseltown they'll crucify you for it. •
By Elaine Wolff