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Review: ‘War Room’

Contrivance and conviction are equally present in the Kendrick brothers' latest Christian-themed hit.

With:
Priscilla Shirer, T.C. Stallings, Karen Abercrombie, Alena Pitts, Alex Kendrick.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3832914/

Yet another faith-based indie that upended the expectations of box office prognosticators by scoring a bountiful opening-weekend gross, “War Room” is by far the most slickly produced and insistently evangelical movie yet from the sibling team of Alex and Stephen Kendrick. Unlike their previous “Fireproof” (2008) and “Courageous” (2011), which wove uplifting messages of contrition, redemption and transformative Christianity into tales about morally challenged first responders — firefighters in one, police officers in the other — their new drama is pretty much undiluted prayer rally from beginning to end. The emphatic proselytizing doubtless will resound with ticketbuyers who feel a drama focused on the possibility of spiritual salvation can be every bit as compelling as a spectacle that pivots on the question of whether Loki can pull one over on the Avengers. But it remains to be seen if there’s crossover potential for a wide release so bereft of alluring plot hooks for mainstream audiences.

Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla Shirer), an attractive wife, mom and real estate agent, has grown weary of constantly quarreling with her inattentive husband, Tony (T.C. Stallings), a hard-charging, frequently traveling pharmaceutical company rep who may have cheating on his mind. But before she can consider a visit to a divorce lawyer, she has the good fortune — or, perhaps more accurately, the miraculous fortune — to cross paths with Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), a feisty old lady whose Bible-thumping zealousness is so pronounced that even Tyler Perry’s perpetually extroverted Madea might find her to be, well, a bit much. (All the major characters in “War Room” are black, which may be another reason why some underestimated the movie’s ability to draw flocks to megaplexes.)

Miss Clara is unashamedly and indefatigably curious, if not downright nosey, and quickly divines that all is not right in Elizabeth’s life. So she advises the younger woman to pray, pray and then pray some more, preferably in the seclusion of a closet converted into a spiritual “war room” where she can paste Bible verses, wish lists and other inspirational material on the wall for easy reference. As Miss Clara sees it — and Elizabeth soon comes to agree — Elizabeth should not spend her time dwelling on Tony’s many failings as a husband, or his neglectfulness as a father to their daughter, Danielle (Alena Pitts). Rather, she should be fighting alongside, not against, her errant husband, forging an alliance to battle the one responsible for their unhappiness: Satan.

In the world according to the Kendrick brothers, miracles start to happen just as soon as someone starts praying. Indeed, sometimes all it takes is a few entreaties to the Lord for a losing high-school football team to begin a victory lap. (Check out 2006’s “Facing the Giants.”) In “War Room,” manifestations of divine intervention are rather more prosaic, but every bit as helpful: When Tony dines out with a cutie during a business trip, and considers her offer of herself as dessert, he suddenly is stricken with an upset stomach that requires a hasty rush to the men’s room. Cineastes, take note: This may qualify as the funniest prevention of a close encounter since Doris Day conveniently contracted a nervous rash to disrupt Cary Grant’s amorous plans in “That Touch of Mink.”

But Tony doesn’t start to see the light and share prayer time with his wife until he’s fired from his job — for skimming samples and then selling the merchandise — and discovers, much to his surprise and shame, that Elizabeth will continue to stand by him. (Spoiler ahead.) One thing leads to another, for what seems like a much longer time than it should, and everything leads to a climactic double-dutch jumprope tournament where a team led by Tony and Danielle claims a trophy. No, really: That’s what happens.

It’s easy to laugh at the arrant contrivances and heavy-handed dialogue in the script penned by Alex and Stephen Kendrick. But it’s even easier to admire the persuasive sincerity and emotional potency of the lead performances by Shirer and Stallings, who do not transcend their material so much as imbue it with conviction. As a director, Alex Kendrick still has much to learn about pacing — “War Room” could be nearly a half-hour shorter after judicious trimming of repetitive or unnecessary scenes — but there can be no gainsaying his ability to bring sufficient power and credibility to key scenes involving expressions of faith and supplications to God.

The production values indicate that the Kendrick brothers continue to raise larger budgets from project to project, and, more important, they know how to spend their money wisely. The soundtrack showcases apt contributions by various Christian recording artists — most notably, Stephen Curtis Chapman’s “Warrior,” the kind of closing-credits theme guaranteed to give audiences a satisfying rush as they leave the theater or turn off their TV.

Review: 'War Room'

Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Aug. 30, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 120 MIN.

Production: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a TriStar Pictures presentation in association with Faithstep Films, Provident Film and Affirm Films of a Kendrick Brothers production. Produced by Stephen Kendrick. Co-producer, Gary Wheeler.

Crew: Directed by Alex Kendrick. Screenplay, Alex Kenrick, Stephen Kendrick. Camera (color), Bob M. Scott; editors, Alex Kendrick, Stephen Hullfish; music, Paul Mills; production designer, Katherine Tucker; art director, Al Minott; costume designer, Anna Redmon; sound, Stephen Preston; assistant director, Prissy Lee.

With: Priscilla Shirer, T.C. Stallings, Karen Abercrombie, Alena Pitts, Alex Kendrick.

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