The road to hell is paved with well-intentioned clunkers like “I’m in Love with a Church Girl,” a strenuously sincere but tediously schematic and heavy-handed attempt at cinematic proselytizing for Christianity. To be sure, one doesn’t expect much in the way of subtlety from filmmakers sufficiently hubristic to list God as an executive producer. (Inquiring minds want to know: Did He get points?) But like most other recent evangelistic pics, this one isn’t likely to reach beyond its target flock.
Didactically scripted by Galley Molina, a real-life pastor who reportedly based the screenplay on his own born-again experiences, and slackly directed by Steve Race, “Church Girl” tells the come-to-Jesus story of Miles Montego (rapper-actor Jeff “Ja Rule” Atkins), a former drug kingpin who has reinvented himself as a legit concert promoter. Unfortunately, Miles undermines his reformation by hanging out with longtime buddies still active as gangstas. Even more unfortunately, his every move is monitored by DEA agents (Stephen Baldwin, Martin Kove) who have little faith in Miles’ ability to go straight. Michael Madsen appears, fleetingly, as a third DEA agent, but the brevity of his role suggests that he didn’t believe what was going on, either, and simply didn’t show up after the first day of filming.
For all his efforts to please his anxious mom (affectingly played by Marjorie Mann) and completely change his wicked ways, Miles doesn’t really achieve righteousness until he meets Vanessa (Adrienne Bailon), a lovely committed Christian. Miles is so smitten with this beauty that he agrees to attend her church — where the Lamborghini-driving pastor is played, in a bold stroke of casting, by Molina himself — and even accepts her prohibition on premarital sex. (The pic’s one funny moment: Miles takes a cold shower after failing to smooth-talk Vanessa into a fall from grace.) But when Miles is blindsided by back-to-back tragedies, his faith is sorely tested. Which leads, of course, to an intercession by one of the executive producers.
Despite being saddled with some of the pic’s sappiest dialogue, Ja Rule offers a performance that is borderline miraculous. He is never less than credible, and often surprisingly compelling. He’s especially effective in a scene that could have turned laughably silly if he had made one wrong move, when Miles plaintively addresses a massive stained-glass window image of Jesus while seeking divine guidance. By sharp contrast, most other performances in “Church Girl” are pitched at the level of overemphasizing the obvious. Production values are better than they have to be.
Vanessa, it should be noted, works at a shop where “faith-based products” — books, CDs, T-shirts, etc. — are sold. It’s the sort of establishment where, very soon, you’ll be able to purchase DVDs of this movie.