It may be a victim of unfortunate timing, screening after nearly half a dozen other Sundance titles that also deal with religious fundamentalism, but George Ratliff’s “Salvation Boulevard” would have underwhelmed no matter what its schedule. Careless and bedraggled in its storytelling and never aiming its sights beyond the most obvious targets, this religion-themed satire nonetheless has a strong cast and at least enough droll bits to make for an attractive trailer, and thus ought to score modest-to-decent biz.
Opening scene sees protagonist Carl (Greg Kinnear) deliver a video testimonial on his history as a former Deadhead who has since converted to a member of the massive Church of the Third Millennium. Led by telegenic Pastor Dan (Pierce Brosnan), the church is about to commence construction of a prefab Christian community. Carl and his devout wife (Jennifer Connelly) are to be among its first occupants.
From the start, it’s clear that the film sees evangelical faith of any kind (be it the blow-dried piety of televangelists or the earnest devotion of lost sheep) as inherently risible, and Carl is largely made sympathetic via the apathetic nature of his conversion — he first entered the church in search of a bathroom, and stayed there for lack of anywhere better to go. Of course, the mines of religious hypocrisy provide ever-renewable comedic resources, but this film’s a priori condescension just highlights its overall laziness.
With little time to waste on establishing characters or setting, the plot is set in motion as Pastor Dan accidentally shoots a Christopher Hitchens-like atheist professor (Ed Harris) in full view of Carl, then tries to frame the situation as a suicide. Said atheist miraculously survives in a coma, so Dan tries to pin the cover-up on Carl, even assigning the church’s cameraman (Jim Gaffigan) to murder him.
It’s never clear whether Dan is merely a Machiavellian huckster or a genuine psychopath, and a running subplot in which he mistakes an unknown caller on his cell phone for the devil is bizarrely mishandled. Not that it’s ultimately important to the film, which follows the perpetually confused Carl as he evades Dan and his minions, as well as some borderline offensive Mexican stereotypes who accost him midway through. Help is provided by a comely fellow ex-Grateful Dead follower (Marisa Tomei), who breathes welcome life into her handful of scenes.
Thesps do due diligence to the cardboard characters they’re given (though Brosnan peppers his speech with Texan twangs, odd considering his character is British and the pic is set in Michigan), and Connelly is as committed to her role as always. Based on the novel by Larry Beinhart, pic never really grasps hold of its ever-forking plot strands, and relies most egregiously on a series of “American Graffiti”-style epilogues to tie up its many loose ends.
Tech credits are all pro, though George S. Clinton’s score tries too hard to hammer home the satirical nature of a film whose smirk can be seen from outer space.