September 11, 2017
‘Room 104’ Review: ‘The Missionaries’ Brings a Mormon Meet-Cute to Room 104
(Each week, we’ll kick off discussion about Room 104 by answering one simple question: what’s the strangest thing in Room 104?)
Mormon missionaries aren’t the easiest story subjects. Their work is tedious, their uniforms are square, and they only recently got permission to drink Pepsi. Unless you’ve got showtunes, how do you make their stories compelling? Well, if you’re the Duplass brothers, you add in a dual crisis of faith and sexuality. “The Missionaries” follows two Mormon elders as they completely rethink their lives and purpose. Inside Room 104, they embark on their own version of a Rumpsringa. But the next day, they’re divided on the path forward. As you can imagine, it’s a weird headspace to navigate – which brings us to our weekly question.
What’s the Strangest Thing in Room 104? The Mood
This week’s episode is not paranormal in any way. But when Mormon missionaries Noah (Adam Foster) and Joseph (Nat Wolff) enter Room 104, the general feeling in the air is off. While Joseph is optimistic about converting Sister Halfon, Noah sighs and sulks. “I’m not sure this isn’t a big waste of time,” he confesses. He’s having doubts. He thinks they could be spending their money on orphanages instead of motel rooms. He doesn’t know what to do with his sexual urges. And he’s even had coffee at the Holiday Inn Express. (It was delicious!) Joseph initially plays the voice of reason here, talking Noah down and insisting they pray to God for a sign. Which is precisely when he accidentally sits on the TV remote, and a hardcore porno starts blaring on their screen.
Noah excitedly points to this as a sign in his favor. “We prayed for a sign from God and pornography appeared on our television set!” he exclaims. Joseph stays firmly on task, saying it was his own clumsiness, not a divine omen. But then he starts to lose it a bit. He’s wrapping bed runners around the TV, shrieking, and sputtering. So Noah places a hand on him to steady him. There’s a beat. And all of a sudden the mood in Room 104 makes a lot more sense.
Later, in the middle of the night, Joseph runs out to buy a six-pack of beer. He convinces Noah that sinning will actually make them, like St. Augustine, great men of faith. And with one shaky, two-handed sip of Miller, they’re off. They jump on their beds in slo-mo, laughing hysterically. Later, they return to the television, watching the porn they only glimpsed hours earlier. Both of them masturbate on separate beds, not looking at one another but also talking through the whole experience.
The next morning, tensions are once again running high. But the roles have reversed. Joseph is ready to fully commit to a sinful life of beer, coffee, and afternoon movies. But Noah doesn’t feel great about what they did. Joseph, insisting they just need to go further, tries to kiss Noah. Noah shoves him so hard that Joseph accidentally hits his head on the corner of the nightstand, passing out. There’s no horrifying puddle of blood, but as Noah screams and pumps Joseph’s chest, it seems increasingly likely that his friend is dead.
The camera cuts to black, only to open on the same scene. Noah is sitting near Joseph’s body, talking out loud to Heavenly Father. In the middle of his desperate, confused pleas, Joseph gasps back to life. It’s a sign! In a renewed commitment to their faith, they both excitedly run to their closets for their starched shirts and black pants. But as they’re getting dressed, there’s another pause. “You thinking about…?” Noah asks. He is. “Shall we offer it up to St. Augustine?” Joseph suggests. They both run towards each other in a burst of rapture.
“The Missionaries” suffers a bit under the half-hour format. In its quest to sketch out both a crisis of faith and a budding romance, the episode neglects a key part of the equation: the characters. Joseph and particularly Noah never get time to develop real personalities. Since almost all their discussions are focused on faith and dogma, we have no sense of who these men are outside their Mormon identity. They’re struggling to figure that out themselves, but surely they have character traits besides “principled.”
A story Joseph shares during their drunken escapades illustrates this problem. He tells Noah about riding a roller coaster and raising his hands at the top of the ride, despite the loudspeaker’s insistence to keep his arms inside the vehicle. It’s an incredibly low-stakes story, but Joseph obviously thinks he’s a badass. This sweet naivete and ever-so-slight rebellious streak give Joseph a flash of personality that’s sorely needed. Why couldn’t Noah tell a similarly insightful tale? Or why couldn’t they keep swapping stories instead of more wordless jumping on the bed? The rules of the rom-com are clear: you need a healthy dose of banter for the audience to root for the happy ending. And while “The Missionaries” is more dramedy than screwball, this lack of investment makes its joyous ending land a bit flat.
Room 104 has already been branded an incubator for rising directors – and the Duplass brothers’ open embrace of female filmmakers merits praise. The pair set two rules during production: they would not direct any of the episodes and at least half would be directed by women. So far, those women have included Sarah Adina Smith (“Ralphie,” “The Knockandoo”), So Yong Kim (“I Knew You Weren’t Dead”), Dayna Hanson (“Voyeurs”), and Megan Griffiths (“The Missionaries”). None of these women, or Patrick Brice and Doug Emmett, have directed for HBO before.
But Mark and Jay Duplass did not apply similar rules to the screenplays and as the series goes on, I wonder if they should have. Mark wrote or co-wrote seven of the 12 episodes and while several of them are good, the most daring episodes of the season – “The Knockandoo” and “Voyeurs” – were both scripted by other writers. Perhaps in season 2, they can cap Mark to half and apply similar diversity requirements? Or better ones? Although the influx of women is great, the directing and writing talent on Room 104 is still overwhelmingly white. The Duplass brothers are on the right track here, but they could still be doing better.
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