On the wobbly heels of the disastrous atheist film The Ledge, here comes Salvation Boulevard, another hopeless flop about the hypocrisy and homicidal passions of evil born-again Christians. I’m not taking sides. I’m just telling you it’s a stupid farrago of aborted ideas, misguided actors, lame direction, sub-mental 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 viewers’ interest. It knocks itself unconscious trying to be something substantial, but fails on every level.
A stoned dork named Carl Vandermeer (Greg Kinnear) trying to get tickets to a Grateful Dead concert finds himself in front of the Church of the Third Millennium, run by slick TV evangelist pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan). The gullible Carl and his wife Gwen (Jennifer Connelly) become instant converts, giving up sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll to be saved. They also dedicate themselves to helping Dan defeat his chief opponent, professor Paul Blaylock (Ed Harris), an atheist who writes best-sellers. Their televised debates on the existence of God draw hefty ratings, so 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. During the meeting, Dan takes out a gun, blows a hole through the head of his nemesis, and blames the whole thing on Carl.
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. The freaked-out Honey encourages prison (“No sex, no drugs—just like church!”).
In the exaggerated spiritual crisis that follows, 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 suicide. But Carl, hits his assassin with a rock in self-defense, sinking deeper into a vortex of religious-fueled frenzy. There’s no sign of a director anywhere, and it’s a good example of an otherwise stellar cast left to their own intuition. This is both odd and disappointing, since director George Ratliff, who co-wrote the moronic screenplay with Doug Stone, based on a book by Larry Beinhart, once made a plausible thriller called Joshua. Here, he seems to be directing by telegram.
The victims come out of their near-death experiences not to clear Carl, but to make the contrived plot manipulations even sillier. I threw in the towel when Carl was kidnapped by 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 Kinnear and 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 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.