George Ratliff’s flip adaptation of Larry Beinhart’s mystery-thriller Salvation Boulevard is a misfire of the first order, starting with the way writer-director Ratliff and co-writer Doug Max Stone turn what could’ve been a provocative, gripping story into an over-the-top yukfest. Framed as a “satire” set in the milieu of upper-middle-class suburban mega-churches, Salvation Boulevard doesn’t seem to have any higher aspiration than illustrating how religious people can be hypocrites. (Gosh, who knew?)
Greg Kinnear stars as a born-again Christian and former Deadhead whose faith is tested when he witnesses his pastor, Pierce Brosnan, “accidentally” shooting famous atheist professor Ed Harris. Brosnan wants Kinnear to take the fall, since no one—not even Kinnear’s wife, Jennifer Connelly—is willing to believe the word of a one-time druggie over a popular preacher. But Kinnear has unlikely allies: a pot-smoking campus security guard played by Marisa Tomei, and his gruff ex-Navy father-in-law Ciarán Hinds, who suspects that there’s more to the crime than the smug Brosnan is letting on.
It’s hard to say what’s worst about Salvation Boulevard: the narrow conception of what a Christian is (or a Deadhead, or a college professor, for that matter), or the excessively muggy performances, which Ratliff fails to bring into any kind of harmony. Ratliff’s decision to go straight for the wacky squanders an opportunity to grapple with the whole mega-church phenomenon, which is plenty bizarre even without all the loony, loony attempted murder. But the manic tone also works against any kind of narrative momentum, since the actors are so constrained by their one-note, cartoony characters that the scenes never develop in any surprising or unexpected ways. The result is like a Coen brothers movie without any wit, style, or clever twists. But hey, at least Salvation Boulevard respects tradition. Where would independent cinema be without painfully unfunny, needlessly star-studded comedies that traffic in broad stereotypes about people who live between the coasts?