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Hollywood mocks what it doesn't understand

Catherine Zeta-Jones, center, plays a politically conservative wife in "Rock of Ages."
Catherine Zeta-Jones, center, plays a politically conservative wife in "Rock of Ages."
David James, David James

A few years back, I had the great good fortune to spend the day with controversial former Bush advisor Karl Rove, who looks far less pure evil in real life. Most of the conversation naturally focused on politics, but while riding with him in the Little America hotel elevator, I managed to squeeze in a question about his cameo appearance on the FOX animated sitcom "Family Guy."

Rove recounted his experience with series creator and lead writer Seth McFarlane, who had written a number of tasteless Ted Kennedy jokes to be told by Rove's cartoon persona at the time the Massachusetts senator was battling what would prove to be terminal brain cancer. Rove told McFarlane he wasn't willing to go there, and together they hammered out some suitably nasty John Edwards jokes instead.

I commented that McFarlane was probably eager to make Rove look bad. "Nah, I don't think so," Rove said. "He was very nice to me. It's just that he doesn't know any conservatives. They're not part of his world. He has no idea what they would say or how they think."

Early this summer, I appreciated this insight as I was enduring a movie called "Rock of Ages," a boy-meets-girl rock-and-roll fantasy musical that makes use of hair band tunes from the '80s. As part of its wafer-thin plot, the Torquemada-esque mayor of Los Angeles launches a moral crusade against a club on the Sunset Strip, a campaign carried out by his puritanical wife, Oscar-winner Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Trust me — Ms. Zeta-Jones isn't going to be winning any prizes for this turkey.)

The fictional Mr. and Mrs. Mayor were supposed to be representative of politically conservative and religious people, except they didn't look or sound like any conservative or religious people I know, and I think I know more than my fair share, thank you very much. Both mayoral spouses were also loathsome, sexually promiscuous hypocrites who were far more morally abhorrent than the targets of their self-righteous ire.

Every time they appeared on screen, they would spew out a stilted, holier-than-thou, judgmental sort of pseudo-holy jargon that bore no resemblance to how religious people actually speak. Zeta-Jones in particular always had a sort of wild glint in her eye that made her look not so much "spiritual" as "axe-murdererish." Golly, I thought to myself, what kind of nascent serial killers filled the pews at her church?

And then it dawned on me.

There probably are no pews at her church, because, more than likely, she doesn't go to church. Zeta-Jones was trying to portray a type of person that would probably never appear in her real-life circle of friends, a person with whom she would have had little or no day-to-day contact. Like Seth McFarlane trying to imagine what Karl Rove should sound like, she had no valid frame of reference and decided instead to rely on her own inadequate perceptions, which were right in line with Hollywood's typical approach to people of faith.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a major studio release where the good guy spends his Sundays at church? The vast majority of Americans do attend regular worship services, but you wouldn't know that if you presumed that churchgoers were all like the sanctimoniously pious frauds that serve as stock villains for your average movie of the week.

Perhaps we should cut the studios some slack and, like Karl Rove, recognize that such mischaracterizations are often born of ignorance, not malice. That's not much consolation when the end result is essentially the same.

Although, to be fair, a more thoughtful approach to religion wouldn't have saved "Rock of Ages." Maybe if they'd thrown in a few John Edwards jokes …

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog,