In the mood for a modern L.A. boy-meets-boy romantic comedy-drama in which the spirit battles the flesh and both win? Even if you are, you may have trouble accepting "Latter Days." A gay niche film with wider ambitions, it's the improbable funny-weepy tale of a straight-laced young Mormon missionary and a swinging young gay bachelor who meet in Silver Lake and, against all odds, find true but not untroubled love.
The central couple in "Latter Days" are Mormon Aaron Davis (Steve Sandvoss) -- who has come to L.A. straight from Judy Garland's "Star Is Born" town, Pocatello, Idaho -- and the ironically named Christian (Wes Ramsey of TV's "The Guiding Light"), a showbiz hopeful. While Aaron trolls for souls, Christian leads a hedonistic life in that patch of West Hollywood known to Angelenos as "Boys Town" while working as, predictably, a waiter. His workplace (and play place, too) is Lila's, a restaurant refuge for gay and bisexual showbiz hopefuls run by Bisset's Lila, the group's glamorous fairy godmother.
Why Aaron and his rowdy fellow Mormon elders have come to a notorious young singles' stomping grounds like Silver Lake and West Hollywood to spread the gospel is anybody's guess. (They act more like frat boys than missionaries.) But hot-to-trot Christian soon spots soft-eyed Aaron, and what starts as a typical flirtation soon turns into a catastrophe for Aaron's church career. His Mormon buddies spot his first smooch with Christian, and he's sent home in disgrace to shocked parents -- Place and Jim Ortlieb.
That kiss and its consequences also spell doom for Christian's lifestyle as a carefree stud. Instead, true love and a sense of responsibility overwhelm him. The movie also veers from its amiable beginnings as a light, brittle sex comedy full of bitchy "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"-style wisecracks, plopping us into a wildly sentimental collapse-and-redemption scenario that suggests a parody of William Inge. We're not in the Kansas of "Splendor in the Grass" anymore; Inge did it much better.
"Latter Days" was a big hit on the gay festival circuit and it has its moments, many thanks to Place and Bisset. Yet despite its obvious personal significance for ex-Mormon Cox, this movie is often as kitschy and artificial as Cox's by-the-numbers script for the Reese Witherspoon comedy "Sweet Home Alabama." The two central lovers, whom Cox says are versions of himself in his Mormon and post-Mormon days, sometimes act like the two missing halves of a Keanu Reeves clone. Ramsey looks a bit like Reeves, and Sandvoss talks like him. Is that why they're soul mates?
Even when "Days" drags in some well-acted scenes with fictitious AIDS victims, it tends to blend raw, real stuff with nudging, winking formulas. The wish-fulfillment fantasies extend to show biz as well. Not only does Rebekah Jordan (as Christian's bisexual singer-songwriter pal Julie) get a successful audition after secretly setting one of Christian's heartfelt missives to music, but her big break comes from legendary mogul Clive Davis.
Cox does resist throwing in a role for Christian in the next Spielberg movie. But he doesn't resist much else. For a film that trades on sexual and romantic fantasies of several kinds, "Latter Days" is surprisingly dowdy-looking, shot more like a scruffy little naturalistic slice of alternative L.A. life than the star-crossed lover's daydream it mostly is. The right audience will like "Days," but at times the movie could use a makeover itself.
Directed and written by C. Jay Cox; photographed by Carl Bartels; edited by John Keitel; production designed by Chris Anthony Miller; music by Eric Allaman; produced by Kirkland Tibbels, Jennifer Schafer. A TLA releasing/Funny Boy Films release; opens Friday, Feb. 13. Running time: 1:48. No MPAA rating. Adult (strong sexuality, language, mature themes).
Aaron Davis -- Steve Sandvoss
Christian -- Wes Ramsey
Lila -- Jacqueline Bisset
Julie -- Rebekah Jordan
Gladys Davis -- Mary Kay Place
Ryder -- Joseph Gordon-Levitt