Friday, March 2, 2018

Comedy Movie Churches

Car Wash (1976) and Fletch Lives (1989)

In our blog about bars, we ask people about churches, and a leading gripe we hear is that churches and clergy are money grubbing. I don’t think that’s actually true about most churches, but it’s sadly true of some, and that makes greedy preachers a favorite comedy trope.

Car Wash is an ensemble comedy, following the employees of a, well, car wash in a neighborhood that’s not the best in Los Angeles. Music legends (Otis Day, the Pointer Sisters) join with TV personalities (Starsky and Hutch’s Huggy Bear, Antonio Fargas; original Saturday Night Live cast member Garrett Morris; Hogan’s HeroesIvan Dixon), and comedians (George Carlin, Professor Irwin Corey) round out the cast. Richard Pryor’s Daddy Rich is surprisingly likable in spite of his obvious character flaws.

DJs at a local radio station form a Greek Chorus for the mostly comic episodic action of the film. (The station plays such public service announcements as “Cancer cures smoking.”) Before Daddy Rich makes his appearance, we hear about his upcoming services on the radio and see his picture on a Wall of Fame inside the car wash, between JFK and MLK Jr.

The Reverend, with his white suit and gold-topped cane, eventually drops by the carwash in his gold limousine with a license plate reading “TITHE.” When he emerges from his car with three stylishly dressed (well, stylishly dressed for the ‘70’s) women (the Pointer Sisters), one of the workers asks who he is.

His coworker says, “It’s Daddy Rich! Don’t you know him from TV?”

Someone asks the Reverend his secret, and he responds, “The secret is there are no secrets! Believe in the Lord and believe in yourself! And most of all, believe in that federal green because money talks and [bovine excrement] walks!”

Some of the workers offer him money (though he obviously has much more than they do) and he gladly accepts it, “I take what is given to me.”

The workers clean the entire car, even though there’s really only a speck on the trunk. One of them asked what the interior of the limo is like, says, “Like being in church with Burt Reynolds!”

Almost everyone at the car wash seems to admire Daddy Rich, except for a Black Muslim named Abdullah (formerly Duane, played by Bill Duke). When Abdullah challenges Daddy Rich, they have this interchange:

Rev.: “Guess you don’t believe in my church - the Church of the Divine Economic Spirituality? You don’t believe in God?”

Abdullah: “I don’t believe in your god.”

The Reverend: “My God’s done alright by me. Why don’t you climb on board, and for a small fee, I’ll set you free, nearer thy God to thee.”

Abdullah calls the Reverend a pimp and they nearly come to blows, but Rich refrains -- as he is “a Christian man.” He passes around an offering plate, and then leaves, waving from the limo sunroof.

In 1989’s Fletch Lives, the Reverend Jimmy Lee Farnsworth (R. Lee Ermey) is nearly as popular in his small southern town as Daddy Rich was at the carwash. (The film is a sequel to the 1985 film, Fletchwhich was also directed by Michael Ritchie; both star Chevy Chase as the title character.)

Fletch, a Los Angeles reporter, inherits a Louisiana mansion and moves there to start a new life. Representatives of Farnsworth Ministries soon approach him to buy the property. (Fletch mentions that his aunt almost left it to the ministry. He says, “the Reverend must have touched her, but not deeply enough.”)

Farnsworth Ministries doesn’t just have a church. They also have Bible Land, an amusement park that Rev. Farnsworth claims is “the most important event since the crucifixion.” It has rides, of course, including a hell ride (which we see treated by visitors as a Tunnel of Love) and a Noah’s Ark ride. (The Flood scheduled every ten minutes looks remarkably like floods I’ve seen on the Universal Studio Tour).

On his nightly television program, which is syndicated throughout the country, the Reverend Farnsworth is not at all shy about asking for money. He also provides a show, with tap dancers and a performing monkey, Mr. Coco.

He astounds the audience when he calls individuals on stage and tells them personal facts about their lives. (He does this with the help of an earpiece connected to a computer room where a great deal of personal information about audience members is stored. The computer itself is one of those room-filling machines with reel to reel tapes.) Rev. Farnsworth encourages people to confess their sins before the television cameras (one woman wants to go into great detail about her sexual misadventures), after which he assures them of God’s forgiveness -- and then asks for money. As each audience member is carried offstage, the Reverend always proclaims, “Another soul saved by Jimmy Lee Farnsworth.”

We eventually learn the Reverend was once a used car salesman and convicted embezzler before he went into ministry.

Fletch doesn’t think much of Farnsworth’s ministry. ( “I believe in a God that doesn’t need heavy financing.“) But Fletch himself doesn’t come off too well in the film. Soon after arriving at his plantation, he sleeps with his attractive realtor. While he sleeps, the woman is murdered. When Fletch discovers she’s dead, he smirks at the camera and makes a cheap joke. Throughout the rest of film, he jokes about her death being a result of his sexual prowess. Nothing Farnsworth does is that tacky.

Nonetheless, because of the great damage that the prosperity gospel does to the reputation and work of the true gospel of Jesus Christ, I’m giving the Reverends Daddy Rich and Jimmy Lee Farnsworth our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

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