Film Review: Salvation Boulevard

An evangelical disciple is pulled into a comically absurd web of crime after witnessing his pastor’s dark side.

A recipe for narrative volatility might read like this: Mix crime, comedy and religion. Wait for explosion. The dark comedy Salvation Boulevard follows just that formula, and the resulting fireworks are fun to watch, even if the overall display contains some misfires and duds.

Pierce Brosnan deploys his suave charisma as Pastor Dan Day, the leader of an evangelical megachurch and a budding businessman with plans for a planned Christian community dubbed “City on a Hill.” The novelty of seeing 007 wooing parishioners is one joke that never gets old, and the play on Brosnan’s star image is perhaps the best reason to watch Salvation Boulevard.

During a debate between an atheist (Ed Harris) and the pastor, Day singles out former deadhead Carl (Greg Kinnear) as an example of a convert who left sin behind and accepted God’s grace. When the trio gathers later in his office, Pastor Dan accidentally shoots the atheist with an antique gun, and covers up the mess to look like a suicide. Of course, the qualms-free evildoer appears suave and in control, while Carl, the innocent bystander, becomes drawn into a criminal web. He tries to set things right, but in the process he must elude murder attempts, kidnapping, blackmail, and all manner of temptation.

At its zaniest, the madcap ride recalls The Big Lebowski, which had a similarly absurd mix of players. Salvation Boulevard’s include a rich Mexican developer with machine gun-laden guards (Yul Vazquez), a married artist with a crush on the pastor (Jennifer Connelly), Carl’s skeptical teen stepdaughter (Isabelle Fuhrman) and his retired U.S. Navy father-in-law (Ciarán Hinds), the pastor’s nerdy AV guy and right-hand man (Jim Gaffigan), and a former Deadhead turned campus security guard (Marisa Tomei). As these religious and non-religious characters clash with one another, mayhem inevitably results.

The critique of supersized religion often goes for the low-hanging fruit, ripping apart the more egoistic and arrogant ways people can use religion. Believers can laugh at this kind of stuff, but skeptics will be laughing the hardest at the movie’s lampooning of evangelicals. The best such scenes are subtle, as when Carl escapes through the church’s complex, inserting himself into a variety of comic tableaux. A person is baptized in the church’s giant swimming pool. Teens rehearse a scare-you-straight abortion scene, which happens to be the subject of director George Ratliff’s 2001 documentary Hell House. As they pass through a Sunday School classroom, the camera lingers on a table of coloring books featuring the smiling likeness of Pastor Dan Day. Doesn’t one of the Ten Commandments warn followers against false idols?

The exploration of religion underpinning the entire work feels superficial and obvious. The opening debate between the atheist and pastor offers only the shallowest of arguments, when it could have been used to reinforce religious points that arise later on. By all accounts, the novel by Larry Beinhart (who also wrote the book that became Wag the Dog) differs greatly from the film adaptation, and perhaps such critical material was omitted. One smart choice made by co-writer and director Ratliff was to make Tomei and Kinnear ex-Deadheads, expanded from a passing description in the book. Their mutual devotion to the band adds a different dimension to the notion of “follower,” especially in comparison to their more tightly wound evangelical counterparts.

Salvation Boulevard
can’t quite pull off that difficult brand of comedy that toggles between held-at-gunpoint tension and sly laughs, but its spirited look at an underrepresented movie subject has at least the entertainment value of one of Pastor Day’s dramatic, music-accompanied sermons.