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Down ‘Salvation Boulevard,’ A Skewering Of Faith

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 14, 2011

Late in Salvation Boulevard, one character threatens another with torture via cat-o’-nine-tails, graphically describing the damage that will be inflicted if they can’t come to an agreement. In a conversation between two Christians, the threat is meant to evoke a punishment familiar and horrific to both — that endured by Christ on his way to crucifixion. Director George Ratliff has his own whipping boy in this film, as he takes razor-barbed shots at Christianity itself. In all three cases, the attacks are overly cruel, but it’s only Ratliff who tries to get some laughs out of his cheap shots.

It’s not that his targets aren’t potentially ripe for satire. The director sets the film within a small town dominated by a local megachurch, the “Church of the Third Millennium.” The church’s director, Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan) is a true believer, but he’s also an opportunistic sleaze, glad-handing his flock without ever really listening to their problems. All he wants is to realize his dream of building a Christian community on an unoccupied tract of desert land, with parishioners filling his pockets with monthly mortgages in addition to weekly tithing.

The blurring of business and worship in the megachurch community seems like a natural subject for Ratliff, who directed the well-received 2001 documentary, Hell House, about church-organized haunted houses and the ways they’re used both to sell church as a good idea to teens and scare them into attending. But where real human subjects supported that film’s conclusions, both the Christians and the atheists in Salvation Boulevard are so heavily caricatured that they barely have ties to their real-world analogs.

At the center of the film is Carl Vanderveer (Greg Kinnear), a former Deadhead who found his way to religion by sheer accident — or, an act of God, according to the church. He’s now Day’s employee, and after a public theological debate between Day and a prominent atheist scholar, Paul Blaylock (Ed Harris), Carl is invited for a drink with the pair, who are much chummier offstage than in the heat of battle. But when an accident leaves Blaylock with a hole in his head and Day with a smoking gun in his hand, the film shifts into a farcical thriller about Day’s initial attempts to cover up what really happened, and eventually try to pin it on Carl.

Only to qualify as a farce, the movie would need to be funny, and Salvation Boulevard barely draws more than a chuckle or two stretched across its 95 minutes. Ratliff has an able cast here, yet he’s only able to get performances ranging from gratingly histrionic (like Jennifer Connelly as Carl’s wife, Gwen) to completely apathetic. For his part, Brosnan seems so disinterested that he can’t even decide his character’s place of origin, his accent meandering aimlessly from his native Ireland to Australia, with brief stops in the American South. None of the other actors appear to be particularly interested in drawing out what comedy might be here, either, while Ratliff’s plot twists are so goofy that he almost seems too desperate to get a laugh.

Without the humor, the stereotypes that define these characters aren’t satirical; they’re just mean-spirited and dull. Ratliff certainly had no intentions to do anything but preach to the choir with this film, but at the end of this sermon, even his true nonbelievers will have long since left the pews. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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