Sinners and saints: Salvation Boulevard *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2011)

Salvation Boulevard is precisely the type of black comedy/social satire/noirish morality play that the Coen brothers excel at. Unfortunately, the Coen brothers didn’t direct it. Or write it. However, I will hand it to writer-director George Ratliff-it does take a special kind of skill to so effectively squander the potential of a cast that includes Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei and Ed Harris.

Kinnear plays ex-Deadhead Carl, a member of a megachurch who has traded the tie-dye and Thai Stick of hippiedom for the sackcloth and ashes of born-again Christendom. Well, maybe not completely (is there really such a thing as an “ex”-Deadhead?), because you get the impression that his wife Gwen (Connelly) is the one who really wears the piety in the family.

Gwen is slavishly devoted to the edicts of the church’s charismatic leader, Pastor Dan (Brosnan), a slick hustler with ambitions to build his own “city on a hill” (more as a monument to himself, than to the Lord-one suspects). Their teen daughter (Isabelle Fuhrman) is apprehensive about Mom’s push to psych her up for taking her “vows” at an upcoming “purity ball”. Meanwhile, malleable Carl just goes with the flow.

One evening, following a televised debate at the megachurch between Pastor Dan and guest speaker Dr. Blaylock (Harris), a famous atheist writer, Carl ends up driving the pastor to the doctor’s home for a nightcap. In the midst of a conversation about the possibilities of the two men co-authoring a book, Pastor Dan accidentally shoots Dr. Blaylock in the head while handling an antique pistol (oops!), leaving the writer alive, but in a coma.

Carl, of course, wants to do the right thing and call the police immediately; but the silver-tongued pastor persuades him to hold off until they get back to the church. Yes, Carl is being set up to be the fall guy-and by the time he realizes it, Pastor Dan, with no shortage of worshipful toadies at his disposal, has the upper hand. No one believes Carl’s side of the story, even Gwen (she chalks it up as a “hallucination”-maybe a relapse to his druggie DFH past). He finally finds a sympathetic ear in a female church security guard (Tomei) who bonds with him as a fellow Deadhead.

Once the pair (seemingly the only two sane and likable characters in the story) hit the highway in a VW van, with the evil heavies from the church in hot pursuit, you would think that you are now in for a darkly amusing “road movie”, chockablock with wacky vignettes fueled by the colorful characters encountered along the way. You would think.

But it is at this point in the film that Ratliff (and his co-writer Douglas Stone) make a fatal mistake. Well, two. First, Tomei’s character gets dropped like a rock-which is too bad, because the only time the film really came alive for me was when she was onscreen. Secondly, from the moment Carl is abruptly kidnapped by a Mexican drug lord (don’t ask) the whole narrative gets hijacked as well, grinding the entire film to a thudding halt.

I’m not sure what happened here; but most of the cast (with the exception of Tomei) sleepwalk through the film (and these are usually reliable actors). Bad direction? Not enough direction? Weak script? All of the above? Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint.

Whatever the root cause, the end product is forced and flat; it’s like a lame network sitcom making a futile attempt to be as hip as, say, Weeds. I had also greatly anticipated the re-pairing of Brosnan and Kinnear, who made a perfect tag team in the 2005 black comedy, The Matador. But alas, it was not to be. Another unpardonable sin-the megachurch phenom is so ripe for a satirical takedown, and that opportunity is blown as well. So I am afraid I have to say: “Praise the Lord and pass the multiplex” on this one.

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