This 2011 movie received limited distribution and seems to have sunk with hardly a trace, in spite of the impressive cast. I attribute this to the subject matter. While dramatic treatments of religious chicanery in the US have a long but sporadic tradition (e.g. Elmer Gantry, 1960), satirical and comedic approaches to religion are still virtually taboo. I still remember the frisson of shock and guilty pleasure I felt when watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian as a youngster. Compared to that, Salvation Boulevard is quite tame, yet still capable of offending many with its jabs at the evangelical megachurches of modern America.
The genre of the film is also at issue. I would describe it as one part Coen brothers black comedy, and one part pure screwball. While the broader elements lightened the film for me, I suspect that they also prevented critics from taking it seriously (especially those on the two coasts, most of whom have never seen the inside of an evangelical church, and don’t “get” the midwestern characters). With a fast-moving, well-constructed narrative, this is a much better movie than the hot mess Dogma (1999) which also attempted to satirize (or at least comment upon) Christianity in the US.
I was impressed with Pierce Brosnan’s performance as the charismatic, empire-building preacher Dan Day, who tries to cover up his role in an accidental death. Brosnan captures the confident self-regard of such men (and they are usually men) who draw hundreds or thousands of followers through their personal magnetism. While he is a charlatan, as his behavior in the crisis demonstrates, he also believes quite genuinely in his own snake oil. I was strongly reminded of Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. Brosnan, an Irishman from County Louth, had a bit of accent distress in this film and doesn’t quite sound middle American. But it works, giving him a bit of exotic appeal…
A perfect foil to Preacher Dan is Greg Kinnear’s Carl, a former Deadhead who stumbles onto the Church of the Third Millennium, in the process gaining a devout wife and a stepdaughter as well as a new direction for his life. He’s Preacher Dan’s shining example of someone who reformed his life from promiscuous sex and drugs to a strict Christian lifestyle. Here the film captures an important strand in the US cultural and generational debate over the impact of the 1960s and 70s, as today’s conservative Christians often cite recreational drugs, feminism and relaxed sexual mores as the root of any and all social evils of the present.
Carl is a sweet, innocent manchild, but he turns out to be far more intelligent and resourceful than Dan expects, and this is what made the film so entertaining for me. The screwball and broad comedy elements are contributed by Jennifer Connelly as Carl’s overly fervent wife, Jim Gaffigan as a hilarious henchman of Preacher Dan who will literally do anything for the cause, and Marisa Tomei as a Deadhead security guard on the college campus where Dan debates an atheist professor, beautifully played by the always-interesting Ed Harris. By contrast, Isabel Fuhrmann as Carl’s stepdaughter, and Ciarán Hinds as Carl’s father-in-law give more restrained performances that feel fully realistic. Hinds is spot-on as Jim, a type those of us who live in the Midwestern states will recognize well: salt of the earth, ex-Navy, decent, good-hearted, and likely to view anything “Christian” as automatically good and anything “atheist” as morally suspect.
At first Jim gets caught up in the general euphoria created by Preacher Dan. His barely concealed disdain for his feckless, former druggie son-in-law is fun to watch. But unlike his daughter, he’s no fool, and we see him slowly drawing his own conclusions about Dan. It is clear that some of the scenes where he follows up on his suspicions were cut, and that is a shame. Jim’s backstory is not given, but from his close relationship to his daughter and the non-mention of a wife, I presume he is a widower. Probably he is a man in need of consolation during those long Michigan winter evenings…
My main criticism is that not enough attention was paid to the ensemble characters. The stepdaughter, for example, is expected to attend a creepy father-daughter “purity ball” decked out in a virginal white dress, where she pledges to be pure in thought and deed until marriage. I suspect that she too had more scenes that were cut from the final version. Annoyingly, there were no special features or deleted scenes on the DVD that I bought. Still, the film scarcely has a dull moment, and is full of sight gags and other little details that would bear another viewing. Not to mention a bevy of Beautiful Men. I was pleasantly surprised at what a good film this is.
- Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson promote ‘Love Punch’ at TIFF (irishcentral.com)