Offering a gentle rejoinder to the dogmatic Christian entertainments that draw parishioners by the busload, “Divine Access” considers spirituality less as one true path to God than a multi-directional quest with many open doors. But while it’s refreshing to see a religious film this laid-back and nonjudgmental, actor-turned-director Steven Chester Prince has more trouble defining what his debut feature is than what it isn’t. That brings him in line Jack Harriman (Billy Burke), the reluctant prophet at the film’s center, who becomes a public-access sensation for encouraging belief, but never commits to anything in his personal life.
Actors like Patrick Warburton, Gary Cole, and Adrienne Barbeau are manna from character-actor heaven, but this neither-here-nor-there Southern indie will likely languish in VOD purgatory after its simultaneous theatrical/digital bow.
Part satire, part slice-of-life, part romance, part redemption drama, “Divine Access” moves to the relaxed rhythms of a hero who seemingly has it all figured out. Residing in a modest, secluded lakeside home, Jack skinny-dips off the dock every morning and appears to have no trouble bedding available women with his easy charm. He has no reason to question his life of leisure, but fate takes a hand when his buddy Bob (Patrick Warburton), the producer of the eponymous late-night public-access show, invites him to participate in a panel discussion.
Drawing on the wealth of knowledge he absorbed from his spiritualist mother (Barbeau), Jack humiliates the show’s Bible-thumping host, the Reverend Guy Roy David (Cole), and becomes an overnight sensation. (Four callers phoned in, Bob notes, shattering the previous record of zero.) Jack’s serene air proves so seductive that he starts making paid appearances, and when a healing goes viral, he picks up Nigel (Joel David Moore), who presents himself as a “catcher” of tent revival fainters. He also strikes up a relationship with Amber (Dora Madison), a call girl in need of guidance, and Marian (Sarah Shahi), an ephemeral beauty who turns up periodically to challenge his lightly held convictions.
The premise for “Divine Access” — charismatic charlatan in the Deep South, gaining power and fame on the road — recalls the ever-relevant 1957 political satire “A Face in the Crowd,” but Prince either pulls his punches or perhaps has no punches to throw. Jack describes his inspirational formula as “a little Zen, a little EST, a little Alcoholics Anonymous,” but there’s never any suggestion that he’s selling these seekers a bill of goods. While it’s difficult to put a finger on precisely what he’s advocating, his message of openness, gleaned from his upbringing, isn’t given a sinister shading. If anything, the film is more interested in Jack’s own spiritual discoveries than the cult that builds up around him.
“Divine Access” strikes hardest on the theme of religious intolerance, turning Cole’s Reverend into a deranged, vengeful loner who stalks the scene with a “mini-Jesus” puppet slung over his shoulder. But this absurd caricature of religious demagoguery feels out of place in a film that continually retreats to earnest, down-to-earth nuggets of wisdom. “In the vast expanse between reason and faith lies possibility,” goes one of them, which is a good indication of the nuanced (if vague) theological position that Jack — and the movie — are staking out.
It’s rare for faith-based cinema to favor the imperfect quest for spiritual meaning over the certainty of doctrine, but “Divine Access” winds up in a perilous middle ground where its hero’s uncertainty becomes infectious. None of Jack’s relationships are handled with enough conviction to make them stick, and that carries over to a religious message that’s squishy in the extreme. “Agreeable” is a good quality, but it should never be the best quality a film possesses.