Mass Appeal focuses upon the old represented by Lemmon's Father Tim Farley against the new represented Mark Dolson played by Zeljko Ivanek, yes the Canadian that you heeet. With this dynamic the material, which originated on stage which feels obvious from the film's uninspired though not overly stagy direction, crams some things together. The first being the tones which seems to have rather serious intentions but hides it all within a constant levity. It then seems fitting enough to have Jack Lemmon in the lead role noted for his ability in both drama and comedy, though I confess that I tend to prefer him as a straight dramatic actor, not that he's a bad comedic actor by any margin. This film seeks a classic mix, which was quite disastrous in his Oscar nominated turn in Tribute just four years before.
Well that mix actually does work here in that Lemmon uses the comedic to actually realizes who Father Farley really is. In the early scenes of the film we see kind of Farley's normal routine which is to be the priest that everyone loves. Lemmon in turn brings that particularly affable style of his where he has kind of this spry attitude and upbeat delivery to everything he says. Lemmon tends to bring a smile to Farley's face along with this apparent easygoing indifference. The indifference though Lemmon succeeds in making rather appealing as he is indeed almost sort of a song and dance man as he goes about his homily. Lemmon brings absolutely no weight to his sermon to his flock, yet this is intentional since he still is engaging in the moment by providing this what would be described as goodnatured humor to the whole affair. This is but a set up though for Farley to meet his match in the young Mark.
A major problem with the film is the character of Mark is rather insufferable and it is hard to tell if that is Ivanek's performance or intentional as written. I would almost like to imagine it was intentional since Eric Roberts originated the role on Broadway and one can only imagine how that must have been like, but I doubt it. The character is so incredibly self-righteous, and though we hear all about his charitable works, we never see it or see him help anyone. We never see him really even care about anyone, only treating every who isn't him with such extreme disdain, making all his pontificating just an attempt to merely to stroke his ego. I mention all that because the film second thing it crams together is the two stories, and since one of the characters is intolerable it leaves Lemmon to pick up the slack at playing the pseudo-mentor to the young man.
That is a bit muddled though as the film seems to believe it is showing the two men improving each other through their company it doesn't quite achieve this by how one note Mark is. Again this just adds onto Lemmon's burden in his role. Lemmon though is game to try to make it all work. This includes even dealing with Mark, as Lemmon's easy going style is a constant antidote to his angry young man companion. Lemmon though does use this to reveal Farley's technique to help the man which is to attempt to get him to become less intense. Lemmon manages to do something pivotal which is that on one hand he does show the compromise in attempting to soften the harsher side of the man, but he importantly inflicts these few moments where he reveals this genuine sincerity in his attempt to help Mark actually connect with his congregation.
The third cramming comes as the film seems to wish to develop this story of a self-discovery for the Mark, in which it fails entirely, along with a The Browning Version style story of an older man attempting to realize and come to terms with his failings. The second aspect again does have some success through the able efforts of Jack Lemmon. As Farley attempts to teach Mark, and Mark fights back at every turn, Lemmon depicts Farley frustrated reactions to allude to his problem. The problem of being self-satisfied in an unsatisfactory place. Lemmon is effective in that essentially every come back of Farley becomes less jokey which Lemmon uses to reveal the frustrations Farley has for himself as much as at Mark. Although the writing is a bit hamfisted in this regard, such as in a scene where Farley tests Mark's abilities by offering a case of a boy beaten by his father, while obviously being his own story, Lemmon is able to find honesty within the problematic technique. Lemmon does this by calling about the happy go lucky side as his comfortable place, that Lemmon expresses as easier to be in yet always grants a hallow smile. This leads to eventually a speech that seems right out of The Browning Version, where Farley admits his failure in front of his whole congregation in an attempt to help Mark. Lemmon makes the most out of the scene offering both the passion and desperation in his delivery. It isn't quite a powerful moment due to the weaknesses of the film, but it is at no fault of Lemmon that's not. This is a good performance by him as he tries to salvage the material best he can. He doesn't quite make the film work, but he at least finds some truth within his character of Father Farley.