On the wobbly heels of the disastrous atheist film The Ledge comes another hopeless flop about the hypocrisy and homicidal passions of evil born-again Christians, called Salvation Boulevard. I’m not taking sides. I’m just telling you it’s a stupid farrago of aborted ideas, misguided actors, lame direction, submental writing and follow-the-dots plotting that never comes anywhere within a 10-mile radius of what I used to call coherent filmmaking. I guess it’s supposed to be a spoof of religious hysteria and the war between the blind inspiration of organized religion and the dark forces of Satan, but it isn’t funny or provocative enough to hold interest long enough to finish a bag of popcorn. It knocks itself unconscious trying to be something more substantial, but fails on every level. I call it cinema at hard labor.
Stoned dork Carl Vandermeer (Greg Kinnear) sleeps in his van overnight trying to get a ticket to a Grateful Dead concert, and when he wakes up the next morning, he finds himself in front of an ugly architectural house of worship called the Church of the Third Millennium, run by slick TV evangelist Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan). The gullible Carl, who never seems to be cooking on all four burners, and his wife, Gwen (Jennifer Connelly), become instant converts, giving up sex, drugs and rock and roll to be saved. They also dedicate themselves to helping Pastor Dan defeat his chief opponent, Professor Paul Blaylock (Ed Harris), an atheist who writes best-sellers like The World Needs Religion Like I Need a Hole in My Head.
Seeing as their televised debates on such topics as the existence of God draw hefty ratings and enthusiastic audiences, the professor (who is as greedy and amoral as the preacher) summons the zealot to his office to propose a no-brainer collaboration on a book of conversations about their opposing world views, covering such trigger points as the Virgin Birth and the definition of religion as fear of the supernatural, that will be bigger than vampire rom-coms and bingo put together. During the meeting, Pastor Dan takes out a gun, blows a hole through the head of his nemesis, and blames the whole thing on the naïve Carl. (The sleazy fundamentalist makes a profitable cause out of what he passes off as the professor’s suicide attempt, setting up Carl as the guilty party who drove him to it.) Confused and secretly longing for his old days as a carefree, wacked-out stoner, Carl turns to an oversexed security guard named Honey (Marisa Tomei), a fellow Grateful Dead groupie with a tattoo of a teddy bear on her left breast. They call them Deadheads. (These are the facts you’ve always wanted that will broaden your education in Salvation Boulevard.) The freaked-out Honey encourages prison (“No sex, no drugs—just like church!”)
In the exaggerated spiritual crisis that follows, as Professor Blaylock lies in a coma and the cops search for Carl, Pastor Dan dispatches his cameraman Jerry (Jim Gaffigan), blubbering some distorted parallel to the story of Abraham and Isaac, to kill Carl in the desert and make it look like a second suicide. But Carl hits his assassin with a rock in self-defense, sinking deeper into a vortex of religious-fueled frenzy. There is no sign of a director anywhere and it’s a good example of an otherwise stellar cast left to its own intuition. This is both odd and disappointing, since director George Ratliff, who co-wrote the moronic screenplay with Douglas Stone, ill-advisedly based on a dreadful book by Larry Beinhart, once made a plausible domestic thriller called Joshua, about a homicidal child whose sibling jealousy of a new baby turns him into the worst pint-size monster since the legendary Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed. Here, he seems to be directing by telegram.
The victims of all the violence come out of their near-death experiences—not to clear Carl but to make the contrived plot manipulations even sillier—but I didn’t throw in the towel until Carl was kidnapped by Pastor Dan’s religious enemy in Mexico, who wants to beat him to the construction of his own planned Christian community on a prime chunk of real estate, and the demented preacher mistook Carl as an angel. It’s a cobbled attempt to reunite Mr. Kinnear and Mr. Brosnan, who made a fine team in a much better 2006 movie called The Matador. This time, they’re sleepwalking, but in all fairness, I confess I cracked a wan smile when Mr. Brosnan rubbed his nose trying to look pious, singing hymns at the top of his lungs, and warding off annoying calls from the devil on his cell phone. The rest of Salvation Boulevard is heavenly hash.
Running time 95 minutes
Written by Douglas Stone and George Ratliff
Directed by George Ratliff
Starring Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Pierce Brosnan