THE GOOD CATHOLIC

Producer: John Robert Armstrong, Graham Sheldon and Zachary Spicer
Director: Paul Shoulberg
Writer: Paul Shoulberg
Stars: Zachary Spicer, Wrenn Schmidt, Danny Glover and John C. McGinley
Studio: Broad Green Films

C

A young Catholic priest questions his vocation in Paul Shoulberg’s earnest but overly schematic and ultimately ineffectual comedy-drama. Though designed as a tribute of sorts to his father, who left the priesthood and married, Shoulberg’s film never really rings true, either in its central plot device or the secondary elements surrounding it.

The picture is set at a parish in Bloomington, Indiana, where Father Daniel (Zachary Spicer) serves as assistant to the pastor, Father Victor (Danny Glover). Also resident in the rectory, rather bewilderingly, is Brother Ollie (John C. McGinley), a Franciscan friar who also serves as an assistant to Father Victor. The very set-up undermines credibility; at a time of a severe priest shortage, it’s highly unlikely that any parish would be so generously staffed. (The screenplay also seems unaware that Bloomington is part of the archdiocese of Indianapolis, since it refers to “the bishop” at several points.)

The unusual staffing arrangement is necessary to Shoulberg’s plot, however, because Victor and Ollie represent the extremes of opinion that Daniel is constantly hearing from. They’re like Fathers Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and O’Malley (Bing Crosby) in “Going My Way,” with the former representing the tradition-bound “old school” priesthood and the latter the newer, looser one. (Ollie is a Franciscan, presumably, so that he can remind people of the current pope, a bobble-head of whom he keeps on the dashboard of his car.) While Victor is the stern dogmatist, Ollie opts for ultra-gregarious relevance, as demonstrated in his “with it” leadership of the parish choir.

Daniel is caught between these two poles of priestly conduct, but he can cope with that. His real problem comes when Jane (Warren Schmidt) walks in on the Friday-evening confession period “the bishop” has mandated and Daniel, low man on the roster, is assigned. She’s a sharp-tongued thing, a singer-slash-waitress at a local coffee house who claims to be dying and, unaccustomed to the whole sacrament business, just needs somebody to vent to. Daniel listens, and as she visits him repeatedly, she begins prodding him to talk about his feelings, too. Among them, we sense, is a growing interest in her—and not one of a purely spiritual sort.

Thus begins Daniel’s search within himself. Did he enter the priesthood merely to please his late father, an old friend of Victor’s? Did he ever really have a vocation at all? Certainly these questions would have been thrashed out over the many years he would have spent in seminary, but Jane’s intervention seems to have raised in his mind, for the very first time, the question of whether he is “seeing God” as Victor inelegantly puts it, and sends him into emotional turmoil.

Spicer registers a great deal of suffering as Daniel confronts his personal demons, waking up in night sweats and grimacing during his morning jog, and neither the legalism of Victor nor the camaraderie of Ollie provides a sufficient answer. A particularly poisonous moment occurs when Daniel invites Jane for dinner at the rectory and Victor peppers her with uncomfortable questions while Ollie interrupts with inane remarks apparently designed to defuse the tension. By this time Victor is obviously concerned with the change in Daniel’s attitude and anxious to address his issues. In the end, though, it will be Daniel who has to make the decision about his future.

Spicer certainly brings commitment to the young priest, though he does tend to wear his heart on his sleeve. Glover is severe and intense, though he does loosen up a bit at the end, while McGinley, not known for restraint under the best of circumstances, goes the manic route with mixed effect. The really weak link, however, is Schmidt. Her character isn’t well developed in any event, but the actress’ shrill delivery makes her much less sympathetic a figure than was apparently intended. The production is of modest indie quality, with the cinematography (by Justin Montgomery) and editing (Kevin Weaver) only average.

“The Good Catholic” doesn’t really fit into the “faith-based” category, but it isn’t sufficiently compelling to please mainstream audiences either. It may have been a labor of love for Shoulberg—perhaps a plea to reconsider the issue of clerical celibacy—but most viewers probably won’t be moved to much affection for it.