Almost all of the films Dustin and I saw at Sundance this year were press and industry screenings. Before most of these screenings, there’s usually a PR flack who offers up “press notes” to those who want them. These press notes are packets with a bunch of info about the film — a relatively spoiler-free synopsis, bios of the cast and director, usually a statement from the director and/or writer, and sometimes interviews or other types of information. Dustin doesn’t bother with them, but I like them because they offer the filmmakers’ take on what they think they’re giving us (and so, in response to a commentor’s question about how I could speak to what the filmmakers intended to do or how smart they thought they were — in those cases, I could speak to it because I had their words to that very effect).
I mention this because when it comes to Salvation Boulevard, I wish I could I just give each of you a copy of the press notes, which are about as clever and interesting as the film itself but have the bonus value of taking less of your time and making for an amusing wall hanging, to boot (I’ll explain, below). Salvation Boulevard, an intended satirical look at Evangelical Christianity, has an excellent cast: Pierce Brosnan, Ed Harris, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei, and Jim Gaffigan. And in light of this cast, Salvation Boulevard has to be the most disappointing film of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival because how do you not make a good film with this batch?
Salvation Boulevard is about Carl (Kinnear), a former Deadhead married to Gwen (Connolley), a proud member of the Church of the Third Millennium. This is a suburban mega-church headed up by Pastor Dan Day (Brosnon). Pastor Dan is not a charlatan; he’s a true believer that he hears God’s voice and is doing His work. And because Gwen is a true believe in Pastor Dan, Carl has become an awkward and slightly reluctant born-again believer and member of the Church and, in the process, a bit of a poster-boy for the Church. As for the plot, let me excerpt from the press notes synopsis:
Carl’s new belief system is turned upside down when he witnesses a sinful act that Pastor Dan’s doughy henchman (Jim Gaffigan) aims to cover up. In the meantime, Carl finds himself on the run, torn between Honey (Marissa Tomei), a security guard who still follows the Dead and partakes in those pleasures, and his militantly devout wife (Connelly).”
Throw in Ed Harris as a staunch and vocal atheist author who engages Pastor Dan in public discourse, and you have what should be a decent film. And it starts off decent enough, with a satirical-light vibe, more of a “heh, that’s pretty amusing” than an “oh my god, that hilarious.” There’s a decent-enough scene early on where Pastor Dan and Harris’ professor engage in a public debate, which works particularly because Harris is wonderful as always (though sorely underused in this film) and because Brosnon wears the preacher role pretty well. The scenes with Tomei are similarly amusing, or at least cute, because she makes such a lovely Deadhead (of course, she’s a lovely anything). And when we get a tour of some of the Church’s facilities, there are some very amusing bits, like the use of the facilities’ gym pool for baptisms, and the “Pastor Dan Day’s Jesus & Me Coloring Book” (the press notes are fashioned like this coloring book, which is why they make for an amusing wall-hanging and will, in fact, be hung in my lawyerly office). And even though the film was able to make excellent use of a scene from Legend, that scene actually kick-starts the plot with Gaffigan and Kinnear’s Carl-on-the-run, and that’s where Salvation Boulevard quickly loses whatever little charm it had going for it.
Director and co-writer George Ratliff says that there is “delight and humor” in watching Job-like characters get torutured, and he’s right, in theory. And though Kinnear plays the role Job-like role well here, there’s just not much delight and humor in the most of what happens — it all just falls flat. And that’s the answer to the question of a how a film with this cast can fail — the blame lands primarily on a script that never finds itself. It attempts to jump back and forth from being a broad comedy, a sharp satire, a light-hearted observation of the Evangelical mindset, and a bad on-the-run action film, and none of it really sticks. By about an hour into the film, I found myself praying that it would soon be over. And glory be, thirty minutes later I saw the light of the credits, and the film was over. Praise Jeebus.
Salvation Boulevard premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.