What hath Tyler Perry wrought? The playwright-turned-filmmaker found an under-the-radar niche of African-American family audiences hungry for slice-of-life seriocomedies that have nothin' to do with the hustle and flow. That's admirably opened the market and given black audiences a wider choice. But a wider choice of what? If it's movies like The Perfect Holiday, My Brother, The Second Chance or Divine Intervention, those families might find themselves pining for Pirates of the Caribbean.
This low-budget religious rom-com from sophomore feature director Van Elder, who comes straight out of Compton, revolves around a small Baptist church in South Los Angeles. Young pastor Robert Gibbs (Wesley Jonathan) is filling in for the injured regular reverend, Clarence Matthews (James Avery), and dating the rev's beautiful but spiritually lapsed daughter, Divine (Jazsmin Lewis). But one church deacon (Laz Alonso), who's running for city council, is alarmed to see the traditional, photo-op-friendly congregation now taking in "a bunch of punks and dykes" that the inclusive and open-minded newcomer has added to the flock. Add that Dad doesn't like the upstart trying to steal his church and his daughter, and you've got...a godforsaken lesson on awful filmmaking, relieved only by occasional sharp turns from a crackerjack supporting cast.
Shot in 12 days on location, the film carries a uniformly faded look that helps explain why cinematographer Jonathan Hall took no opening credit and settled for the end-crawl. Writer-director-editor-producer Elder, who cameos as a church usher late in the film, spends most of his time giving us long, talky expositional dialogue around tables, with people constantly talking rather than showing—telling us all about themselves and what they want out of life and why they're doing what they're doing. Gibbs is a lawyer-turned-priest "livin' in a small apartment in the hood, alone"—as he tells us. He doesn't want to be "a failure to myself, and especially to my church"—or so he tells us. Divine is an elementary-school teacher. We never actually see her teaching, but that's what she tells us. If Elder couldn't arrange to shoot a five-second insert of Divine in front of a classroom, then maybe he should have given her a job he could, perhaps, show us on film.
The camera goes in and out of focus in a couple of scenes, there's odd flickering in the background of one nighttime shot, and the costumer must've gone Old Testament on Divine, since no matter what the occasion the woman's dressed like Jezebel. One scene at the pastor's apartment seems designed solely to let the camera linger on the double-D-cup Divine spilling out of a plunging red dress like Pam Grier. This is amid talk of Jesus and spirituality, yet half of everything Pastor Gibbs says to various women sounds like a sleazy come-on: "I'd love to share more spiritual blessings with you...you'd be amazed at the power of God if the message is delivered a certain way!" Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, praise the Lord.
We give thanks, however to some solid veterans in the cast. Avery, from TV's "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," is smooth, committed and convincing as the tough-talking older preacher who doesn't want things to change, and two older actresses, Roz Ryan as the formidable Mother Candice and the single-name Luenell as a pot-smoking church lady, raise high the rhetorical roof.
Ryan delivers the one good line in this movie: "The Lord can handle retribution, but we want our restitution." You can use that when you ask for a refund at the box office.