In my review of Higher Ground, I noted that religion is a tricky topic but that it was easy to mock it. Salvation Boulevard can barely even manage that. The story features a mega church and celebrity pastor and there’s great fun to be made at the absurdity of these elements in modern evangelical Christianity. Instead, co-writer and director George Ratliff uses this setting as the thinnest of backdrops for a chase movie that goes absolutely nowhere.
Carl Vandeveer (Greg Kinnear) is a former Deadhead and has come to Christ through the Church of the Third Millenium. Vandeveer works at the publishing arm of the mega church, which is run by the handsome and charismatic Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan). Carl and Dan are spending the evening at the office of an atheist professor (Ed Harris) talking about a possible book deal when Dan accidentally and hilariously commits a terrible crime. Dan can’t explain to the police the accidental nature of the crime because it would jeopardize his planned Christian Community, “City on a Hill”, which is the movie’s cleverest joke. Instead, he throws Carl under the bus and the hapless ex-Deadhead is forced to go on the run to try to clear his name.
The “City on a Hill” joke is the first one in the film and it leads you to believe that you’re in for a much smarter movie than you actually end up getting. Salvation Boulevard is at its best when it’s poking fun at religion. Ratliff takes us through a quick tour of Pastor Dan’s mega-church and we see weight rooms, coloring books featuring Dan, and other delightful absurdities. We also get to see the stagecraft behind Dan’s sermons and it helps show that the congregation celebrates the pastor as much as Jesus if not more so. However, it’s slightly unbelievable that the evangelical church would be so willing to accept Dan who isn’t American and isn’t married.
It would be easier to suspend disbelief if Ratliff found something interesting to do with Dan’s character. The chase with Carl is a waste, but there’s real potential in exploring a Pastor who makes a Faustian-like bargain with a sinister force attempting to exploit him. Instead, Dan is just a righteous hypocrite. He truly believes in God and the Devil, but he doesn’t waste a second trying to pin the crime on Carl. Rather than try to pull humor and pathos out of a devout celebrity pastor wrestling with his faith, the film simply casts Dan as a stock villain.
Instead of finding the humor in religion, Ratliff invests in Carl’s story and having him on the run. But rather than send him on his journey with a compatriot that could provide an interesting foil or help provide insight into Carl’s character, the wayward Christian simply encounters characters who serve a single function. He runs from Dan’s right-hand man Jerry (the totally non-threatening Jim Gaffigan) and he gets a little help from a security guard/current Deadhead (seriously, how many hippies are on the Sundance film selection board?) Honey Foster (Marisa Tomei).
But more maddening than the one-dimensional supporting cast is the lazy writing behind Carl’s character. We’re told that Carl is a deeply devout individual who turned away from his life as a follower of the Grateful Dead and found happiness in the Church. But we never see him pray once. You could argue that Carl was perhaps not that much of a believer or that Dan shook his faith, but that change could at least be gradual instead of completely overlooked.
Higher Ground didn’t work for me as a film but I admired its devotion to earnestly depicting deeply-religious characters and their commitment to Christianity. Salvation Boulevard is too busy with a poorly paced, unfunny chase movie to even realize that answering a higher comedic calling would make it a far better movie.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:
- Bobby Fischer Against the World
- Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
- The Details
- Higher Ground
- The Interrupters
- The Lie
- Like Crazy
- Magic Trip
- The Music Never Stopped
- My Idiot Brother
- Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times
- Project Nim
- Red State
- These Amazing Shadows
- Win Win