Judge Erich Asperschlager leads daily tours into temptation. Inquire in the gift shop.
A man of God. A woman of sin. A race to save her life.
Into Temptation is a quiet, intimate movie about what happens when the safety of religion meets the hard job of saving souls. It has a talented cast, compelling premise, and satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion. Unfortunately, a bloated middle section and some awkward storytelling choices keep it from being the powerhouse character study it wants to be.
Facts of the Case
In his early years, Father John Buerlein (Jeremy Sisto, Six Feet Under) almost single-handedly saved an inner city Catholic parish, choosing a dwindling congregation who needs him over a cushy church like the one his friend Father O'Brien (Brian Baumgartner, Four Christmases) pastors. Lately, though, he finds himself going through the motions. Once, he had the drive to open a rehabilitation center for alcoholics. Now, he treats confessional time as an opportunity to catch up on crossword puzzles. His personal life has its own distractions: a mother who constantly reminds him that she disapproves of his professional calling, and the only woman he's ever loved moving back to the city after a divorce. Everything changes, however, when a call girl named Linda (Kristin Chenoweth, Sit Down Shut Up) walks into the confessional booth and asks if she can confess to a sin she has not committed yet. She tells him that she's planning to kill herself on her birthday. After unburdening herself, she exits the church quickly, escaping before Father John is able to say anything meaningful to her. Driven by guilt, and by an obsession with helping a woman in need, he ventures into the red light district to find her, against the advice of his friends and at great risk to his personal safety and reputation. Will he find her before it's too late?
While Kristin Chenoweth was still working on Pushing Daisies, she gave an interview in which she described several upcoming roles she was afraid might upset parents whose children were fans of her work. One of those roles was Linda, the suicidal call girl in Into Temptation. In reality, her role in this movie is tamer than the film's plot might suggest. Besides some strong language and a couple of racy scenes, Into Temptation wrestles more with issues of faith than it does sins of the flesh. Chenoweth's character is central to the plot, but this movie is really about the young priest, played by Law and Order's Jeremy Sisto. In trying to track down and help Linda, Father John reclaims a part of his spiritual life it seems that he's lost—the part that forces a person to roll up his sleeves and put faith into action.
There are clear allusions here to the parts of Jesus' ministry that were unpopular with the well-heeled religious teachers of his day. As Father O'Brien tells his congregation early in the film, Jesus dined with tax collectors. He spent time with those considered unpleasant, unclean, and much worse, all in the name of saving souls. One of Into Temptation's most heavy-handed metaphors is that Father John's church is dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute. Listening to his own words for perhaps the first time in a long time, John realizes that everyone has potential, even someone like Linda.
On the other end of "getting dirty" spectrum is Father Ralph O'Brien, played by Brian Baumgartner (best known to audiences as Kevin Malone in The Office). Father O'Brien lives a comfortable life as head of an affluent parish. His sermons are tossed off, and littered with jokes. He treats wedding rehearsals like community theater productions. He protects his livelihood by staying "professional." That means no running after a prostitute based on something told in confidence in the confessional booth. Baumgartner could have played O'Brien as a caricature, but he doesn't. Drawing on the subtle comedic timing that makes him so memorable on Office, he plays this irreverent priest as equally garish and sincere. In short, like a real person. The same is true of Sisto, who carries the weight of the film on his shoulders, and does so without breaking a sweat. Some of what he says and does (especially from the pulpit) smacks of Hollywood Christian caricature, but at every other moment he seems authentic. Understated and powerful, Father John is a fully-realized character.
I wish the same were true of Chenoweth's Linda.
Probably the biggest failing of Into Temptation is that it wastes a talented actress by giving her so little to do. By the time we meet Linda, she is resolved to end her life. With the exception of a scene in which she confronts the man who abused her as a child, everything she does to carry out her plan is done with business-like efficiency. We get to see her not only cancel her newspaper and her cable—and those scenes are just as exciting as they sound. That's not a knock against Chenoweth. Like the character she plays, she is a consummate professional (albeit in a very different profession). The real tragedy of Linda is that because she has been viewed by men as an object for her entire life, she views herself that way, too. In her mind, she's already a lifeless corpse.
My frustration at the Linda character could have been alleviated by either giving her more to do in the film, or less. Because this movie is ultimately about Father John's spiritual journey, perhaps Linda should just have been a fleeting, elusive spectre that he's chasing. It wouldn't have been a role for Kristin Chenoweth, but it would have focused the story. Personally, I'd rather they have fleshed out Linda's role. The movie would have worked just as well, if not better, had the filmmakers treated it as two parallel stories equal in importance. As it is, the Father John storyline is repetitious, with a saggy middle section padded by unnecessary distractions. Chief among those distractions is a subplot about John's childhood sweetheart coming back to town and looking to restart their relationship. It raises interesting questions about the nature of service and why people choose the lives they do. It's just a different movie. You could say the same thing about the inclusion of John's disapproving mother, though thankfully her part in the film is much shorter.
Into Temptation redeems itself in the final act, leading up to a twist ending that works because it ties everything together as much as it does leave major plot points up in the air. Although parts of the resolution feel forced, it is a perfect expression of how faith works. Things don't always work out the way you want them to—in fact, often it's impossible to know how our actions affect other people—but that doesn't mean that what you do, or believe in, has no impact.
On DVD, the film is presented in widescreen format with 5.1 surround. It looks good for a movie with a lot of night scenes. The surround mix is added, even if it is unnecessary. Enjoy it, because there are no bonus features.
Into Temptation struggles to find focus and define itself. It also wastes the talents of its lead actress. Still, it's worth watching for anyone interested in matters of faith put into action, thanks to impressive lead performances and a satisfying conclusion.
Not guilty…although matters of faith are out of my jurisdiction.
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Studio: First Look Pictures
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