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Jack Weyland's Charly

(2002) * 1/2 Pg
103 min. Excel Entertainment.

The best kept secret of modern American movies is Mormon cinema. In the last few years, Mormon films have begun squeezing into multiplexes for blink-and-you-miss-'em runs backed by grass-roots promotion and direct-marketed preaching to the converted. It would be a mistake to lump all Mormon movie product into the same bargain bin, though limited production value can result in a pervading flatness. To qualify as Mormon cinema, seemingly, also means masking a recruitment film in a genre cloak. Brigham City, for example, adopted the conventions of a serial-killer thriller. Jack Weyland's Charly at long last gives the 1980 Latter Day Saints paperback romance weepie its big-screen due.

Charly tells the love story of strait-laced Mormon Sam Roberts (Jeremy Elliott) and New York intellectual Charly Riley (Heather Beers). Charly is a Free Spirit who teaches Sam to laugh. Sam is a Spiritual Man who teaches Charly to believe (as he does, in the "happily ever after" of faith). Charly's past--with the pesky ex who won't go away--drives a not-so-suspenseful wedge between the lovers. But the film's advertising tagline--"Real love stories have no ending"--suggests the real concern: the bittersweet fate of their all-too-mortal love (at the word-of-mouth screening I attended, official Charly tissues were dispensed).

Charly clearly has its heart in the right place as wholesome family entertainment with a positive, spiritual message. If you go to movies for wholesome, this is it. Occasionally, a nifty idea breaks through, like a faux checkout-lane fight perpetrated by the lovers. But you must expect barefaced symbolism--like the water of new life and the eternal cycle of a ferris wheel--and character development which is needlessly undernourished in certain key respects (Charly's quick conversion and her parents' awestruck alarm at the idea of churchgoing come to mind). The actors work hard--sometimes too hard--to carry the day, but you may end up amusing yourself instead by deciding whom each leading player resembles (I say a young Gary Cole and Lauren Holly). Without such distractions, the predictability of Charly begins to feel as eternal as that ferris wheel.

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