The massive profits earned by last spring’s surprise-hit “God’s Not Dead” have emboldened Christian production outfit Pure Flix to finance an entire slate of faith-based fare coming soon to a theater near you. First out of the gate is “Do You Believe?,” another dreary ensemble drama from “God’s Not Dead” screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon that worships with equal reverence at the altars of the Lord and of “Crash” auteur Paul Haggis. Dutifully (but never divinely) weaving together the lives of assorted saints, sinners and skeptics as they move toward the light, “Believe” is more professionally produced and acted than the indiegelical norm, but only fitfully engaging on a dramatic level and entirely hermetic on a theological one. Grassroots marketing and group sales should power this 1,200-screen release to solid opening numbers, but can it come anywhere near the $60 million domestic haul of its predecessor? God only knows.
At once more subdued and less perversely fascinating than “God’s Not Dead,” “Do You Believe?” lacks any single element as risibly doctrinaire as that film’s atheist philosophy professor (played by Kevin Sorbo) who — in a literal deus ex machina climax — accepted Jesus as his personal savior after being mowed down by a car en route to a concert by Christian rock superstars the Newsboys (who also contribute several songs to the new film’s soundtrack). Instead, director Jonathan M. Gunn (whose credits include the 2000 Christian crime drama “Mercy Streets” and the decidedly less pious “My Date with Drew”) here proceeds in more earnest fashion, introducing a dozen Chicagoans of various creeds, colors and levels of faith, whose lives intersect in the shadow of a large illuminated cross overlooking the Chicago River.
They include grieving parents Teri and J.D. (Cybill Shepherd and Lee Majors), whose only daughter was killed by a drunk driver; homeless widow Samantha (Mira Sorvino, a long way from “Mighty Aphrodite’s” prostitute/porn star Judy Cum) and her precocious daughter Lily (newcomer Makenzie Moss); nurse Elena (Valerie Dominguez), whose soldier brother Carlos (Joseph Julian Soria) has newly returned from an unspecified war zone; pregnant teen runaway Maggie (Madison Pettis), whose parents tried to force her to have an abortion; and a couple of stocking-capped, Cadillac-driving gangbangers (Senyo Amoaku and rap artist Schwayze) that only a couple of white screenwriters could dream up. (Their character names: Kriminal and Pretty Boy, respectively.)
Watching over this disparate flock is the good pastor Matthew (Ted McGinley), who tells us in his opening voiceover that there are “10 million souls” in his city — which suggests that Chi-Town has undergone quite the population boom since the last census. (That the movie focuses on 12 of them, the same number as Jesus’ apostles, is hardly coincidental.)
Inspired by a late-night encounter with a mysterious street preacher (Delroy Lindo), Matthew hands out pocket-sized wooden crosses to his congregation and urges them (in the paraphrased words of James 2:17) to put their faith into action — a scene Gunn crosscuts with Kriminal and Pretty Boy executing a botched hit on a rival gang leader. (The baptismal finale of “The Godfather” it isn’t.) And, for most of “Do You Believe?” Matthew’s sermon inspires the kind of goodness and generosity that cuts across denominational lines. Teri and J.D. open their home and hearts to Samantha and Lily, who help to fill the void left by their own daughter, while the childless Matthew and his wife (Tracey Melchior) similarly take Maggie under their wing.
But eventually, the old us-vs.-them sentiments bubble up to the surface. For want of a Friedrich Nietzsche to throw under the theological bus, or an entire university system to deride as a bastion of atheist groupthink, “Do You Believe?” instead spews its venom upon trade unions, the medical establishment and the American legal system — all variously depicted as secular strongholds hostile to anyone who dares to reveal him/herself as a true believer. “I do His work. I should get the credit,” snarls an ER doctor (a hilariously miscast Sean Astin) with a “god complex.” Elsewhere, the movie literally puts God on trial, when a devout paramedic (Liam Matthews) finds himself charged with “proselytization under cover of authority” for sharing his faith with a dying man in the line of duty. (The man and his wife, we learn, were both members of the American Humanist Assn., whose motto, “Good Without a God” is offered here as the ultimate mark of secular shame.) “Inherit the Wind” it isn’t.
Crises of faith, even among true believers, have made rich fodder for spiritually inclined artists for centuries. In movies, perhaps the greatest example is French director Robert Bresson’s 1951 “Diary of a Country Priest,” about a devoted parish priest who tries unsuccessfully to bring his wayward parishioners back to God — a premise revisited last year by Irish writer-director John Michael McDonagh in his superb “Calvary.” But those movies were art and “Do You Believe?” is agitprop plain and simple, less interested in varieties of religious experience than in proffering the old televangelical/tent-revival assurances that faith will not just save your soul but also cure cancer, PTSD and whatever else ails you. Sometimes, Pastor Matthew muses late in this overlong (119 minutes) film, it’s difficult for us to understand God’s master plan and that we are all uniquely colored threads in His grand tapestry. But when all its threads are finally pulled into place, “Do You Believe?” proves about as spiritually enlightening as a Kmart throw rug.