George Ratliff first made a mark with the documentary Hell House, concerning the trend in Bible Belt states toward alternative haunted houses where the exhibits—on abortion, on suicide, on drinking and toking—are meant to scare people into turning to Christ. You’d think he’d bring more insight to the religion satire Salvation Boulevard, or, failing that, at least better jokes. Being right doesn’t necessarily mean also being funny, especially when it’s not exactly difficult finding fault in evangelical Christianity.
As the most endearing of many easy targets, Greg Kinnear’s Carl is a dim Deadhead who made the not terribly dramatic journey from worshipping Jerry Garcia & co. to obeying Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan), the charismatic head of a noted megachurch. Carl is one of Dan’s star converts, and he unfortunately witnesses Carl’s accidental, near-fatal shooting of Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens-type Paul (Ed Harris) following a debate in which the two vomit up the most basic theological/atheistic talking points.
Paul is not dead, and yet Dan feels compelled to pin the crime on Carl, because hey, evangelicals are both hypocritical and stupid, right? That would also explain why neither Carl’s wife (Jennifer Connelly, sporting crucifix earrings) nor her gruff ex-military father (Ciarán Hinds) believe he’s innocent, convinced his account is merely the product of an acid hallucination. Elsewhere, people drink from mugs that read “Rapture Ready” and wear shirts that read “I [heart] Life” while kids prep for a Purity Ball.
The problem isn’t that it’s mean to make fun of evangelicals—it’s not—but that the gags are so easy they’re not worth making at all. It’s a common problem with religious satire, which tends to upchuck the exact same jokes without doing much beyond offending some of the audience while congratulating the rest. (Life of Brian, the benchmark, managed both insight and killer jokes.) If anything, Salvation Boulevard pulls punches; though modeled on Ted Haggard and Ken Hamm, Brosnan’s pastor is a curiously unambitious baddie, lacking financial and/or sexual scandals and not even allowed to kill the person he’s shot in the head. But then, this is a comedy that scores one decent joke in 95 minutes, and it’s not even about religion.