Reviewed: The Book of Mormon

Not so salty.

The Book of Mormon
Prince of Wales, London W1

To say word of mouth, or word of Twitter, ensured The Book of Mormon’s critic-proof transition from Broadway to London does not acknowledge Britain’s willingness to be seduced. The day the first, mixed, reviews came out, £2m-worth more tickets were sold to theatregoers who have never once been bothered by a Mormon on their doorstep. London remains in awe of US pop culture, and when we find an example that is anti- God, politically incorrect and wildly popular among Americans, hope floods into hearts unmoved by Obama’s re-election. It’s like 9/11 all over again: we are all Americans now.

As my attempted joke demonstrates, bad taste is easy, being funny hard and I am simply not sure how funny this musical, although effectively, if frugally, staged, boisterously acted and slickly choreographed, actually is. It is certainly bad taste.

A parody of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata” makes comedy out of Aids and female genital mutilation. Its catchy title/ chorus “Hasa Diga Eebowai” turns out to translate as “Fuck You God (Up the Bum)”, which is where the Book of Mormon ends up lodged in a preacher. One of the best numbers, “Switch it Off”, a song about blacking out inconvenient feelings, includes as an example a sister dying of cancer.

For a colonist nation, the racist, dareto- be-offended jokes against Africa require a particularly stiff upper lip. The Uganda to which our two missionary heroes, Elder Price (Gavin Creel), a clean-cut true-believer, and Elder Cunningham (the excellent Jared Gertner), a curly-haired nerd there to find a buddy, are sent is peopled by gullible idiots in thrall to a homicidal warlord, General Butt Fucking Naked.

The African love interest (Alexia Khadime) is described as being “such a hot shade of black she is like a latte” and her conversion to Mormonism is explicitly compared to a sexual conquest. At the end, the black Africans who have bought Cunningham’s improvised brand of sci-fi Mormonism – just as Utah did, we infer, Joseph Smith’s original version – tell the elders that they knew all along religion was but a useful metaphor. The effect is condescending.

It is clear at this point that someone has lost their nerve. The musical’s get-out-of-jail card, its raucous blasphemy, has been traded in for a feel-good moment. But the sentimentality might even be welcome if hilarity had built through the evening. But the songs, faint parodies of not particularly memorable show tunes (“Tomorrow” from Annie is becomes “Tomorrow is a Latter Day”), go on too long. The dancing fails to get past the insight that musicals are a bit gay and the big set pieces, such as Elder Price’s malarial decent into hell, underwhelm.

I should have been on the floor laughing or about to walk out; instead throughout I smiled indulgently, an atheist trying not to feel guilty at watching a soft target, so placid it has taken ads in the programme, being bullied. Life of Brian, Jerry Springer, the Opera and that off-colour masterpiece The Producers, in contrast, induced something ecstatic and freeing. At curtain call the writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose creations South Park and Team America I admire, took a modest bow. They looked a little shamefaced, as if a pleasing bog-wall graffito had somehow ended up in the Tate.

The touring cast of The Book of Mormon.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times