Sunday, May 24, 2015

B-MOVIE REVIEW: “The Pope Must Die” (1991)

It’s a low-budget comedy from the early 1990s starring Hagrid as a rock and rolling priest accidentally named the head honcho of a major world religion. It’s not really that good, but it has its moments. 

These days, the Weinstein brothers are among the most powerful men in Hollywood. Before they achieved their breakout success with the one-two combination of “Pulp Fiction” and “Scream,” however, Bob and Harvey cut their teeth on some pretty admirable b-movie fare -- lest we forget, these ARE the men whose film career’s practically started with “The Burning,” which as we all know by now, is easily one of the greatest unsung summer camp slasher flicks ever made.

Alas, the Weinsteins did wind up hitting some bumps along the road to movie moguldom, however. Their slate of mainstream-but-not-really-that-mainstream flicks throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s were very much hit and miss, and “The Pope Must Die” really demonstrates the overall “meh-ness” of their productions from the period.

All in all, “The Pope Must Die” is a pretty forgettable film, and as a comedy, it’s pretty forced and hokey. In fact, the only thing anyone really remembers about it, honestly, is that it was renamed in some theaters to “The Pope Must Diet” so as to not offend Catholic patrons. It’s not a truly terrible movie, but it never really goes anywhere with its promising premise -- really, all this is is a watered-down version of “King Ralph,” saved only by some out-there sight gags and a few surprising appearances by some familiar faces and voices.

As you would expect, the film begins with the papal council standing around the outgoing Pope on his deathbed. After he croaks, we cut to a small Italian village, where the local priest (played by Robbie Coltrane, aka Hagrid from the “Harry Potter” movies) is working on a car and explaining to local children why his religion forbids him from marrying. Meanwhile, CNN assembles outside the cardinal conference, while schemer Rocco (voiced by the dude who played Roger Meyers, Jr. on “The Simpsons”) makes a pitch for Cardinal Albini (effectively, a puppet for the mafia) to become Catholicism’s new big cheese. As fate would have it, the data entry specialists in Vatican City make a typographical error, and instead of listing Albini as the new pope, they accidentally appoint Coltrane’s rural priest, Albinizi, as the religion’s new leader.

So yeah, it's basically "King Ralph," only worse ... somehow.
To demonstrate Albinizi’s kookiness, we immediately cut back to the Italian village, where he is shredding a guitar at an orphanage fundraising concert. Of course, all of the nuns think rock and roll is the tool of the devil, so they ask Albinizi to exit the priory … only to catch word that he’s been given a big promotion right before he steps on the Italian equivalent of a Greyhound out of town.

Obviously, Rocco is none too pleased that his hand-picked successor was screwed out of the position by a clerical error. At a meeting with some mafia big wigs, he starts work on a plan to oust Albinizi, and since this is a screwball comedy, the segment concludes with one of the mob’s more incompetent goon’s getting his noggin set ablaze … because “physical” is the only kind of comedy that exists, you know?

After Albinizi gets bonked on the head (again, with the low-hanging physical comedy fruit), he meets with the cardinals, who tell him he better do exactly as they tell him or else he’s a goner. For insurance, Rocco arranges a deal with two bumbling hitmen (whose calling card is literally leaving a dead fish alongside their victims) to get Albinizi out of the picture for good.

Albinizi then is shown the lavish papal suites, complete with a full bar and a sweet (for 1991, anyway) entertainment center. At his coronation, he keeps being denied access to the snack platter, because he’s fat and fat people being deprived of their unhealthy addictions to superfluous consumption is also funny. From there, we are introduced to a seemingly irrelevant subplot about a mafia big wig’s daughter sleeping with an entire heavy metal band, and Albinizi does a poor job of handling tough questions at a media presser. Following a hit attempt on the Pope Mobile, Albinizi starts reading some fan mail and slowly but surely begins to unravel a huge conspiracy inside the Catholic Church’s banking system -- he responds by ordering a full investigation of the Church’s books and turns over some of his cash to start a global orphan relief fund program.

So, the Pope, the music teacher from "Rock N Roll High School"
and the son of the dude who made Itchy and Scratchy walk into a
 bar... and also, the Pope is Hagrid from "Harry Potter."
OK, those bumbling hitmen from earlier … remember them? Well, they’ve been ordered to put a hit on
the heavy metal band the mafia kingpin’s daughter has been sleeping with, but OOPS! They accidentally blow up an RV with the daughter inside of it, and wouldn’t you know, the lone survivor of the explosion is the lead singer … whose mom is Beverly D’Angelo … and whose father is … wait for it … Pope Albinizi! Yeah, I know it’s a really hard to swallow plot mechanic, but we’ve had to suspend our disbelief even higher for other movies, like ones about JFK Jr. using military weapons to fight a one-man war against militant 99 percenters after they take over New York City and the federal government doesn’t even do anything about it.

After finding out about some arms dealing, Albinizi defrocks Rocco, and posing as a nun, D’Angelo slowly slinks her way into the papal suite to inform him of his long-lost son … who then promptly dies right in front of him. This leads to a great “Jesus vs. the money changers” allusion in which Albinizi walks into the Catholic bank and just starts wreaking shit; alas, his Buford Pusser days are short-lived, as the scandal about his bastard child makes the media rounds and costs him his crown … err, Pope hat, I guess?

And so, Rocco re-enters the church and his made-man Albini becomes the new pope. Albinizi finds himself reduced to playing guitar on the streets of Rome for extra change, and encounters a street urchin who, as fate would have it, just so happens to be the exact same orphan from the village he used to work at! Once again, I know it’s a difficult plot twist to take seriously, but as before, we have forced ourselves to embrace even more absurd things at the cineplex, like movies about the Koch Brothers turning themselves into android vigilantes to fight Silicon Valley venture capitalists who want to take over the world using impossible nanotechnology and Ben Kingsley pretending to be Chinese in YouTube videos.

So, Albinizi and his baby’s momma make out in a one-room shack while the orphan just stares at her chest, which isn’t creepy or anything. This leads to Albinizi going all John McClane for the grand finale, where he does the absolution for Rocco after he’s gunned down in a mafia double cross and literally brings down the new pope by getting him to admit he’s an arms dealer on live TV and shooting a ceiling down on top of him. Now, even though Albinizi just murdered the head of a religion with one billion plus followers, he surprisingly doesn’t wind up behind bars for the rest of his life. Instead, he gets to return to the orphanage from earlier, where he presumably spends the remainder of his days playing “Speedy Gonzalez” for parentless children and boning Beverly D’Angelo nonstop. So, uh, I take it that means he’s not a priest anymore? Oddly enough, the film’s dénouement never explicitly spells that out for us.

As I was saying at the top of the post, this really isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a one-joke premise through and through, and unfortunately, it was not even that good of a joke to begin with. Granted, there are a few (regrettably) humorous moments, but for the most part, the film is relegated to goofy sight gags and clumsy anti-Catholicism jokes that are just too weak-kneed to be considered subversive or even sarcastic. This is the kind of movie whose idea of cutting-edge, taking-it-to-the-man humor is for a character to whip out a cellular phone shaped like a crucifix -- heretical, it may be, but hilarious? Hardly.

Despite a pretty decent cast -- including Balthazar Getty as the rock and rolling bastard Pope son and Paul Bartel of “Eating Raoul” fame as a subservient mob priest -- nobody really turns in anything remotely resembling a solid performance here. Sure, Beverly D’Angelo looks hot as always, but beyond that? Everybody seems to be on cruise control, and if there’s one thing you definitely don’t want in a balls-out comedy critical of religion, it’s staid acting jobs. I’m not really sure what director and writer Peter Richardson had to work with, but it’s clear that a much, much better film could have arose from such an interesting concept; this ain’t no “Wise Blood,” I am afraid, and it’s certainly no “Four Lions,” either.

And so, “The Pope Must Die” falls into that most tragic of commons -- it’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just mediocre. You won’t hate yourself for squandering an hour and a half on it, but frankly, there are a whole lot more productive things you could be doing with your life as well -- like spending an hour and a half of writing a blog post on why others probably shouldn’t spend an hour and a half of their lives watching an obscure, crappy comedy from the 1990s that nobody’s ever heard of before.

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