I couldn't help but think about one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, the Edward Norton-directed Keeping the Faith, while watching Paul Shoulberg's The Good Catholic, a feature film shot in Bloomington, Indiana and picked up by indie distributor Broad Green Pictures to arrive in theatres on September 8th.
While The Good Catholic avoids Keeping the Faith's more absurdist elements and interfaith conflicts, where the two peacefully intersect is in its honest yet gently funny exploration of what happens when one discovers that one's lifelong calling is actually leading you a different direction than you ever expected.
Based somewhat loosely upon writer/director Paul Shoulberg's own family experiences, The Good Catholic centers around Father Daniel (Zachary Spicer, Master of None, Gotham), whose love of being a smalltown priest is without question even as he must gracefully balance the wise, disciplined counsel of a more conservative pastoral mentor, Victor (Danny Glover), and a more free-spirited Franciscan with a penchant for carbs and good smokes, Ollie (John C. McGinley).
Everything changes when Jane (Wrenn Schmidt, Outcast) walks into his confessional.
If this sounds like The Good Catholic is going to be a cinematic excuse for yet again poking fun at the Catholic Church or making light of the idea of faith or commitment, think again. In fact, the biggest problem in The Good Catholic may very well be that it never really pokes fun at anything or says anything else that matters despite Shoulberg's story practically begging to be approached as an edgier, more deeply satirical look at what happens when a committed man of God suddenly finds himself forced to choose between his passion for God and his unexpected passion for a woman.
The other problem with The Good Catholic comes in its marketing. By openly billing the film as a romantic comedy, any sense of mystery or uncertainty is gone. We know from the moment that Jane, an agnostic musician with a death fixation, enters that confessional that these two are going to fall in love and if there's one thing that The Good Catholic really needs it's that sense of wonder. The only thing one truly wonders is how a young priest, likely highly educated given the Catholic Church's educational requirements, could find himself falling for a random, non-Catholic woman who never shows an ounce of respect for his spiritual journey nor his vocational commitments.
Love is strange. Indeed.
The fact that The Good Catholic is based upon Shoulberg's real life parents makes the film's timidity all that more surprising and disappointing. There's a brilliant film trying desperately to rise to the surface of The Good Catholic, but it gets lost in Shoulberg's labyrinthian need to not offend anyone in anyway anyhow.
Had Shoulberg even merely stuck to the actual facts of his parents' unconventional romance, The Good Catholic would have likely offended the Catholic Church but at least been an infinitely more involving and interesting film. By toning down the facts, that Shoulberg's father was a former priest and his mother a former nun, The Good Catholic seems to be working overtime to tell a meaningful story in a not quite so meaningful way and, inexplicably, billing it all as a romantic comedy.
Yet, here we go. Almost despite its misdirection, The Good Catholic is also a somewhat admirable and even entertaining film that could find and should find an audience that appreciates it for being exactly what it is - a fairly saccharine, well meaning exploration of genuine issues of love and faith that proves respectful of diversity and embraces the idea that sometimes that which we are called into is actually calling us into an entirely different direction altogether.
Spicer's main challenge is in overcoming a script that never quite convinces us he has a passion for or a commitment to anything. From an opening scene in which a yawning Father Daniel quietly awaits his first confession, Father Daniel's role as priest seems less about passion and more about obligation. Yet, Father Daniel's relationship with Jane never feels honest with Spicer's scenes with Glover and McGinley possessing far greater authenticity and spark. Spicer, who could best be described as a chaste Zach Braff, feels uncomfortable in both worlds and symbolic gestures, like always wearing his collar with Jane until the very end, feel hollow and contrived.
While Schmidt's Jane comes off as infinitely more mature than Father Daniel, at least early on, that maturity gives the later relationship a gravitas and emotional accessibility that proves beneficial. Schmidt has a gift for quiet, natural comedy and by film's end one can't help but understand why even a man of the cloth would find himself drawn to her.
While Danny Glover is effective as a disciplined priest who finds God in the details, The Good Catholic is at its best when John C. McGinley is at the forefront as Ollie, a Franciscan whose pastoral maturity is constantly called into question by Glover's Victor but whose presence here likely reflects the kind of pastor we'd all most like to have in our corner. McGinley, who has always been a gifted actor within the realm of dramedy, finds both the rich humanity and outright hilariousness of Ollie and the screen just lights up every time he comes back into the picture. McGinley, perhaps more than anyone else here, seems to be perfectly in sync with the vibe that Shoulberg ultimately seems to have been trying to attain with the film.
The Good Catholic is at its most effective as a gentle exploration of faith and love and how it can be expressed in our lives in a myriad of ways including those quite unexpected. However, The Good Catholic falls most short in precisely how it's being marketed, as an unexpected romantic comedy, because the unexpected is never fully embraced and the film never delves beneath the surface of a relationship that never feels authentic enough to warrant our attention.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic