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Review: 'Salvation Boulevard' takes wrong turn

A film with just half of the cast of "Salvation Boulevard" would be well worth seeing.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A film with just half of the cast of "Salvation Boulevard" would be well worth seeing.

But despite the talents of Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosnan, Marisa Tomei, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Ciaran Hinds, Yul Vazquez and Jim Gaffigan, "Salvation Boulevard" is far less than the sum of its fine, character-actor parts.

And it seems so promising. A religious satire based on the book by Larry Beinhart ("Wag the Dog"), "Salvation Boulevard" gathers an intriguing group of characters — evangelist zealots, aging Deadheads, academic nonbelievers — in a murder plot that somehow steers clear of both real comedy and interesting parody.

All the action is based around the Church of the Third Millennium and its celebrity pastor Dan Day (Brosnan). More a snake oil salesman than man of God, his services are glitzy, thoroughly produced affairs. He's got a bestseller ("An Anointed Life") and is planning a Christian community to be called City on a Hill.

His flock is utterly devoted to him, none more than Gwen Vanderveer (Connelly) whose husband, Carl (Kinnear), is a reformed Grateful Dead follower who has traded tie-dye for a suburban fleece vest.

When Carl and Gwen attend a debate between Pastor Day and Dr. Paul Blaylock (Harris), a learned atheist, Day cites Carl as a prime example of the power of God. Afterward, Blaylock invites both for a private drink where he suggests he and Day pen a book together.

Day, casually cradling a stiff drink, quickly grasps the profit potential. In an excited spiel on how God prevents "random chance," the pastor uses a desktop pistol as a prop and accidentally shoots Blaylock in the head. He quickly rubs his prints and splits, leaving the moral quandary for Carl to agonize over.

In the fallout, director George Ratliff (whose films include the documentary "Hell House," about an extreme youth service at a Texas church) looks to satirize the blind devotion of congregations to charismatic leaders. No one believes Carl's account of the shooting (Blaylock remains on life support), not even his wife.

Church cameraman Jerry Hobson (Gaffigan) essentially functions as Day's henchman. Former Navy man Joe Hunt (Hinds) dismisses Carl's claims as an "acid flashback." He and Gwen want the pastor to back their plan for a Christian movie theater.

The only ones who believe Carl are his daughter (Isabelle Fuhrman), who's already a reluctant churchgoer, and local security guard Honey Foster (Marisa Tomei), who befriends Carl as a fellow Deadhead. Tomei, greatly enjoying the spacey ditziness of her character, introduces herself as a Dead tour veteran of "'81 to '92."

It's a good premise and a movie couldn't ask for better comedic actors, but "Salvation Boulevard" gets derailed. While the film remains reasonably entertaining, nothing clicks. The jabs at religion are easy, shallow ones. The satire is neither biting nor empathetic.

"Salvation Boulevard" is the second time Kinnear and Brosnan have starred as foils to each other. This follows the far more fruitful collaboration of 2005's "The Matador," in which Brosnan plays a brilliantly boorish hitman who's lost his mojo.

The two were so good together that one doesn't want to discourage more films from them. But despite obvious promise, "Salvation Boulevard" is a wrong turn.

"Salvation Boulevard," an IFC Films release, is not rated. Includes some drug use, violence and expletives. Running time: 96 minutes. Two stars out of four.