"The Catechism Cataclysm" marks the sophomore feature of writer-director Todd Rohal, whose peculiar ensemble piece "The Guatemalan Handshake" made the festival rounds in 2006. Whereas "Guatemalan" took a wide view of Americana through Rohal's cast of offbeat characters, "Catechism" plays like a singularly wacky, surrealist sketch comedy—wildly entertaining, invariably random and delectably strange.
[Editor's Note: This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. "The Catechism Cataclysm" hits select theaters this Friday, October 21 through IFC Films.]
The movie opens with the childlike priest Father Billy (Steve Little of HBO's "Eastbound and Down") addressing his church study group with the story of an old woman yanking out her gun at a couple of would-be robbers. The tale ends abruptly, leaving Billy's students to wonder about the message, which Little stumbles to find. A clueless grin locked on his face, Billy haplessly backs down from an explanation, and retreats into a back room to watch viral videos on YouTube.
That abrupt opening is among the many non sequiturs recurring throughout "Catechism." Rohal assembles the narrative in much the same fashion, following Billy on an ominous fishing trip with old high school pal Robbie (Robert Longstreet) that takes a series of increasingly bizarre twists, but never at the expense of comic inspiration. Little's goofy naïveté, barely differentiated from the obsequious character of Stevie on "Eastbound," sustains the movie's giddy first half. Told by his overlords at the church to take an early vacation and reconsider his career choice, Billy meets up with former metalhead Robbie at a diner. Their meandering conversation mainly revolves around whether or not Robbie is actually a famous musician (he's not) and Billy's nostalgia for Robbie's ability to tell random, meaningless stories when the two were teenagers. In this regard, Rohal seems to be offering a rebuttal to the presumption that all stories must make sense, an idea that sets up the outlandish direction of the movie's second half.
The fishing trip starts off as an amiable bonding experience, with Billy letting his loose about his spiritual insecurities after guzzling a single beer. "I've corrupted a priest," Robbie says. "Maybe I want to be corrupted," Billy says, then confesses that he's never been happy. Despite scatological and sexual gags throughout, moments like these display Rohal's ability to mix crude humor with unexpected poignancy.
Although at first discombulated, "Catechism" eventually finds its way to an enjoyably irreverent vibe. In the concluding scenes, Rohal veers into an utterly dreamlike plain with plot developments involving demonic trance music and decapitation. But the core of the movie revolves around the moronically cheery Billy finding his purpose while Robbie learns to appreciate the innocent priest's oblivious manner. Think of it as "Old Joy" on crack: Occasionally just outrageous for no reason, "Catechism" sometimes feels intentionally obscure, much like Rohal's last movie. It's essentially a hilariously brazen lark, which is reason enough to embrace it.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Little's cult popularity on "Eastbound" may provide the movie with a strong VOD reception, and the backing of production company Rough House (fronted by Danny McBride, David Gordon Green and Jody Hill) could introduce some additional attention from fans of those filmmakers' equally zany works.
criticWIRE grade: B+