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The Book of Mormon Movie, Volume 1: The Journey
Since we all already know the story (having read the Book of Mormon multiple times, like good Mormons should), how about I give a very quick and dirty summary based on the depiction of the movie:
A well-muscled, naïve young man named Nephi has a schizophrenic father, Lehi, who talks to imaginary beings. Even though this is fiction, it is remotely cast as historic fiction, so Nephi and Lehi are alleged to have lived in Jerusalem around 600 B.C.E. Lehi, a paranoid schizophrenic who believes the world is about to end, decides to force his well-to-do family to leave Jerusalem with no idea where they are going to go. Where they got their money is anyone’s guess, as Lehi sits around having hallucinatory dreams all day when he isn’t preaching doomsday doctrines in the streets. Nephi has a couple older brothers, Laman and Lemuel. They look a little more Middle Eastern than the rest of the family, probably because Middle Easterners are currently depicted in Hollywood as being evil terrorists, so Nephi has to look anglo while his evil brothers look Middle Eastern (just the first of many racial/ethnic stereotypes). Ironically, Laman and Lemuel are also the only intelligent and sensible characters in the story. They question the crazed ramblings of their insane father, and don’t want to give up their nice lifestyle. For this, they are mocked and even chastised by angels.
Lehi’s hallucinations prevail and the family treks out into the wilderness (the wilderness being Southern Utah, which apparently passes for Palestine). While they are gone, the good citizens of Jerusalem don’t even consider burgling their home, which is very nice of them considering it is chuck full of gold and precious things. They haven’t been out loitering in the desert too long before Lehi gets another crazy idea – he wants a bunch of brass plates from some unknown historical figure who also happens to be basically the most powerful man in Jerusalem at the time (odd that he isn’t mentioned in any other historical treatises, not even the Old Testament). The guy’s name is Laban, and apparently he has it out for Lehi. Lehi is too big of a delusional pussy to go after the plates himself, so he sends his four oldest sons – Nephi and Sam (the good boys) and Laman and Lemuel (the bad boys). They screw things up, initially, then an angel intervenes when Laman legitimately criticizes Nephi for being a naïve idiot and thinking that Laban wouldn’t just take their gold when there was no one and nothing to stop him from doing it. (Still makes no sense why someone else would not have taken it sooner.) Apparently god supports idiots in their blind devotion. And, of course, this is used to make Laman and Lemuel seem irrational as they have seen an angel but they still don’t believe and follow their annoying, self-righteous younger brother. Show any skeptic alive today an actual angel and they’ll believe. The label of “irrational” is misapplied, of course, but this isn’t a surprise, is it?
Eventually Nephi sneaks back into the city, sees Laban (remember, he’s only the most powerful man in all of Jerusalem) drunk without any guards, laying in the street with a sword at his waist, ’cause, apparently , every powerful economic/political leader carried a sword back then when drinking. Why was Laban drunk in the street? Because, apparently, Jews invented bars? Why else would Laban be wandering the streets at night, drunk, alone, and singy bawdy Irish drinking songs. What does Nephi, the good son, do when he finds this drunkard? Help a poor drunk man home? Protect him from all of the thieving scoundrels who roamed the streets of Jerusalem at night in 600 B.C.E. but didn’t rob their house? Nope! He takes Laban’s own sword and hacks off his head. Why? God tells him to.
Laban, amazingly, doesn’t bleed during the process, allowing Nephi to put on his immaculately pressed and bloodless clothes and impersonate him, duping Laban’s #2, Zoram. Zoram falls for it and gives Nephi the plates of brass, then follows Nephi outside the city without so much as questioning why Laban would do such a thing. When they find Nephi’s brothers, Zoram realizes the deception. Nephi grabs him before he can run and says the most ironic line of all time, “Covenant with me to do everything I say and I’ll make you free.” How is that freedom? If he doesn’t do what you say you’ll kill him. And his freedom is doing what you say. That, my friends, is the clearest illustration of cognitive dissonance a Mormon has ever spoke. Of course, Zoram signs on (given his options, who wouldn’t?). Apparently as an indication of how big of an idiot he is, Zoram stays true to the covenant, joining Nephi and gang in the “wilderness” of Southern Utah (a.k.a. Palestine). Zoram even drinks the Mormon Kool-Aid when he proves that he can reconcile the cognitive dissonance by describing his coerced agreement with the following line, “There’s always a choice.” Hmmm… death or absolute obedience. I like those options… As if this wasn’t enough, Nephi uses thinly veiled temple ceremony quotes to reinforce the pact, “Do you solemnly covenant… blah, blah, blah.” The only part missing is the threat of beheading and disembowelment, which was removed because god hasn’t believed that since 1990.
So, Nephi and his brothers return with the plates and Lehi is amazed that they aren’t dead. Since they aren’t dead, he decides to send them back to basically get some women and men to use as breeding partners (apparently even Joseph Smith wouldn’t stoop to incest). This brings Ishmael et al. into the party and they all get along splendidly, having a regular Mormorgy in the desert. As part of the Mormorgy, the women decide they want to do a poorly choreographed Indian/Irish/Jewish folk dance. This culminates in a non-Mormon wedding – no patriarchal grip, no funky robes, no temple ceremony, no blessings of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, etc. Nothing. Apparently Lehi didn’t have the fullness of the gospel in this version of the Book of Mormon. But, in true Mormon fashion, Lehi’s 1950s American social conservatism comes out in his thinly veiled advice to the newlyweds, “Try to get some rest tonight.” So Mormon! Sex is okay as long as we don’t actually talk about it, see it, or make it seem pleasurable. Of course everyone blushes as a result of his advice, then they jump into their tents and screw like rabbits.
It’s around this time that Nephi reveals he does, in fact, have genetically inherited schizophrenia when he tells Lehi, “Dad, I just heard voices.” Lehi’s response, “I believe you, son.” Takes one to know one?
What follows next is an on-again, off-again cycle of everyone but Nephi wondering what the hell they are doing out in the desert, followed by Nephi behaving strangely only to have his strange deeds rewarded by amazing coincidences (e.g., finding food, building a boat without any training, shooting lightening out of his hands like Raiden from Mortal Kombat, and so on). The rewards keep Laman and Lemuel’s unexplained blood thirst at bay, but always temporarily. Apparently, deep down inside, if you aren’t a man of god (i.e., the god of Mormons), you are a raving lunatic who just wants to kill the men of god; who knew?
Nephi eventually builds a boat, with a little help from his brothers. They jump onboard and repeat the “We want to kill Nephi for no apparent reason other than he’s a self-righteous prick followed by Nephi being empowered by god to stop them” cycle. This round of the cycle, however, is probably the funniest. Nephi is really starting to show signs of schizophrenia when he condemns everyone for wearing skimpy clothes (an accusation the writers/producers made up as it isn’t in the BofM). The irony, of course, is that they haven’t change their clothes from the beginning of the movie. They were wearing the same clothing when they did their Indian/Irish/Jewish folk dance, and that just got Nephi off. Maybe the lesson to be learned here is that, just like modern Mormon leaders, actions are sins when they decide they are, but they can change their mind from day to day. Oh, and why the hell did Nephi need the liahona to calm the storm? My guess: Because, when Joseph Smith was writing this, he hadn’t gotten past his belief in magical devices, so a magical device was required to control god. Once he decided all that was required was the make believe priesthood, magical devices became passe.
Eventually they all make it to the “promised land” (a.k.a. whichever part of America the current Mormon apologists want to claim it is, or maybe some where other than America, who knows, just so long as it isn’t falsifiable by modern science). Once here, Nephi eventually realizes that Laman and Lemuel don’t like him (shocker!). Rather than piss them off, again, by being a self-righteous dick, he decides to leave. This frees Laman and Lemuel from the social constraints that kept them from turning into blood lusting savage lunatics who wear no clothes, cover themselves with paint and tattoos, and dance around fires – all in about 5 years. The writers/producers don’t explicitly come out and say it, but this is the point at which Laman and his friends are cursed with dark skin by god, because, apparently, the Mormon god hates black people, just like George Bush. This is probably about as close as you can get to being a prejudiced, bigotted asshole without actually admitting that the Book of Mormon is a racist piece of literature: imply it, but don’t actually say it. Well, Nephi’s “self-righteous” band finds out about this transformation, but what they do will only be revealed in the next installment of The Book of Mormon (working title: “Raiders of the Lost Tribes of Israel: God’s White People vs. the Devil’s Darkies”).
A movie has to really work hard to be this bad. Really, this isn’t easy. But the producers of this movie had a lot of help. They had a script that described by one of America’s most famed authors as “chloroform in print.” If I can make a small suggestion to the producers, “You might want to find a better script.”
Now, add to the script problems all of the production problems, and what you’ve got is a recipe for disaster. The best actor in this film is Laman, the guy we’re supposed to hate. And, frankly, I didn’t hate him. I thought he was the only sensible person in the film. Noah Danby, the actor who played Nephi, should go back to running for a general authority position by building up his business resume. His role in this film isn’t going to win him either material or spiritual rewards. Even Kirby Heyborne, who can be okay in Mollywood films, couldn’t make Sam a believable character.
I don’t think anyone is going to argue that the acting was terrible. But what about the casting? Try this one on for size – a guy named Bruce Newbold played Moroni. Granted, Mormon apologists would probably say there isn’t anything wrong with a dyed in the wool anglo playing a Native American Indian, since there is no way we can ever determine his genetic characteristics – he could have looked European. Right! And Winona Ryder would make a good Malcolm X.
Let me see if I can accurately capture the mentality of the producers of this movie when it comes to their chosen depiction of characters and the time period, “Hmm, let’s see, it will make the general authorities happy if we make all of the prophets look like general authorities. So, that’s probably okay. And, since we have no budget for this film because we don’t have the official support of the general authorities (who probably don’t really want people to read the damn book), we can’t afford to hire people who might actually look Jewish or Middle Eastern or Native American. So, we’ll just get BYU co-eds to play the roles. Oh, and because we don’t have the financial resources of Mel Gibson (and no one knows what reformed Egyptian looks or sounds like), we’ll have everyone speak in a mixture of 1830s and 21st Century English, just whatever the script writers decide to come up with. Our audience will be so moved by the Spirit that they won’t care about the production quality or inconsistencies. I mean, heck, they don’t know much about this stuff anyway. And those who do won’t be able to bring themselves to sit through it anyway, so no worries.”
There should be no question that this movie is awful. But let me just throw out a few additional things that make it terrible I understand they had a small budget, but filming in Southern Utah? Come on! Couldn’t you at least get out of Utah? The real camels almost make up for this laziness… For some reason Nephi is called “Master” by the locals in Jerusalem. Why? The visual effects are actually passable, except for when it is obvious that the boat and village are models, the mast in the storm scene is made out of styrofoam, the dead goat is fake, and the fruit on the tree is made out of marshmallows (salvation never tasted so good, especially when roasted). Nephi’s wife sounded just like about every good Mormon girl I ever meet in Utah. Quite an actress, that Jacque Gray – really pushed herself hard in this role. I was looking for her BYU shirt underneath her costume. Did anyone else think Jesus looked an awful lot like the Geico cavemen? The writers/producers of the movie obviously believe in the hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon as there were no other people when Nephi and company arrived. That can’t make the apologists happy. Did anyone else notice that Lehi’s the only one who aged until the two groups split? Everyone else looks exactly the same age as they did when they left Jerusalem 20 years earlier, except for Lehi. The producers may want to budget some money in for continuity for their next film. Also, the music was over-the-top epic. Create an epic film and you can use epic music. This would have been better scored by Kirby Heyborne’s band Bentleigh. Speaking of Kirby, I really liked his Aztec outfit; I see Orthodox Jews wearing similar stuff all the time!
I also noted a few additional liberties taken by the screenwriters/producers: They created a back story developing the animosity between Laban and Lehi, which is not found in the BofM. Nephi’s sisters and Ishmael’s daughters are all given names. Apparently it isn’t politically correct to ignore women in 2004, even if you’re Mormon.
So, aside from being painful to watch, what are the take-home lessons from The Book of Mormon Movie, Volume 1:
-If someone questions authority (e.g., Laman and Lemuel), deep down they are ravenous, murdering lunatics. Oh, and they are also responsible for anything bad that happens. NEVER QUESTION AUTHORITY!
-It’s okay to kill people when god says it’s okay. Just ask Nephi and Laban.
-Some people are cursed by god. You can tell who they are by the color of their skin – the darker the skin, the more god hates them and the more likely they are to behave like savages.