The Almighty is still alive, albeit also under continuing attack, in “God’s Not Dead 2,” a sequel in which the issue of religion in schools leads to a courtroom showdown over God’s rightful place in society. Boasting a superficially new plot but preaching the exact same sermon – in the identical leaden, graceless manner – as its predecessor, Harold Cronk’s follow-up concocts a laughable crisis of faith whose resolution is a fait accompli, turning the endeavor into a torturous exercise in one-note proselytizing. The franchise’s disciples will surely fill its collection plate as full as 2014’s $60-million-grossing original, but this paranoid persecution-complex fantasy is unlikely to win many converts.
Cronk’s original installment presented Kevin Sorbo’s atheistic liberal-arts professor as the embodiment of satanic evil. Since he literally died for his sins at the end of that story – only after making a deathbed conversion to Christ, however! – the filmmaker’s latest turns to another anti-conservative archetype for its bad guy: an ACLU lawyer, here embodied by Ray Wise as a disbelieving shark who “hates” Christians’ beliefs, and who wants to use his newest case to “prove, once and for all, that God is dead!”
Visually demarcated by his swanky shoes, designer suit and borderline-maniacal eyes, Wise’s Pete Kane is presented as a veritable demon fit for a David Lynch film. “God’s Not Dead 2,” though, doesn’t mean him to be a caricature, but rather a realistic emblem of the “vicious” forces that – as Pastor Dave (David A.R. White) tells a group of ministers led by Fred Dalton Thompson – are waging a genuine “war” against Christians. The notion that Christians are an oppressed minority beset on all sides by secular “rationalist” forces (including the government, which wants Pastor Dave to hand over his sermons) is bluntly articulated throughout. And the effect of such talk is to situate the action in a fictional world that seems at once recognizable – it is, for example, populated by humans who can speak, eat and weep – and yet so topsy-turvy as to be the stuff of science-fiction.
Again collaborating with screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, Cronk’s tale focuses on high-school history teacher Grace (Melissa Joan Hart), who finds herself facing the school board’s fire-and-brimstone wrath when, while lecturing about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., student Brooke (Hayley Orrantia) asks about the similarities between those leaders and Jesus, and Grace responds by quoting scripture. According to her bosses (led by Robin Givens’ mean principal), such biblical discourse violates state and federal laws governing separation of church and state. Thus, Brooke’s parents are soon filing suit against Grace with the aid of Wise’s villainous lawyer, who promises them that the ensuing publicity will somehow help their daughter get into a good college if only they’ll sign on the Faustian dotted line.
Refusing to accept a deal that requires her to formally apologize for voicing her pious opinions, Grace makes a David-vs.-Goliath stand on behalf of the Lord and, in doing so, is equated by the film as a principled kindred spirit to Gandhi, Dr. King and Jesus himself. Represented by scrappy young Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe), who’s not a Christian but respects his client’s staunch convictions, Grace heads to court, where the proceedings – overseen by Ernie Hudson’s bellowing-judge caricature – soon devolve into cartoonishness, with jurors accepted or denied on the basis of their favorite TV shows (“Duck Dynasty” is acceptable to the faithful; “Pretty Little Liars” is preferred by blasphemers), and legal councils indulging in endless, ham-fisted oration.
Just as its precursor trotted out minorities (Chinese, Muslims, Africans) and yet characterized them in inauthentic ways that suggested no one associated with the film had any actual knowledge about people from these cultural/ethnic groups, “God’s Not Dead 2” delivers copious back-and-forth arguments about separation of church and state that seem wholly divorced from any rational understanding of the topic. Instead, that subject is merely a flimsy pretext for a depiction of the tyrannical discrimination faced by Christians, as well as the fundamental legitimacy of their views. By the time Endler mounts a courtroom defense rooted in proving that Jesus was a historical figure – thus making him fit for public classroom dialogue – the proceedings have long since ditched any pretense of legitimate intellectual debate in favor of convoluted evangelizing.
Given a script that articulates every idea in the bluntest manner possible, the cast can’t help but come across as creaky and cornball. That’s also true of returning supporting players, including Trisha LaFache’s Amy, who’s been cured of cancer by God, and who bafflingly writes blog posts by narrating her thoughts into a phone; and Paul Kwo’s Martin, who now sees a future for himself in the ministry, despite his dad’s disapproval. And it’s definitely the case with Pat Boone, who as Grace’s invalid grandfather opines that atheism “doesn’t take away the pain. It only takes away the hope,” and spouts holy homilies like, “Honey, you of all people should realize when you’re going through something really hard, the teacher is always quiet during the test.”
Cronk shoots everything in Hallmark Channel-style glowing sunlight that complements his bright, colorful sets and soundtrack of wannabe-inspirational Christian rock (replete with another climactic Newsboys performance). That aesthetic lack of subtlety is apt, considering that dramatically speaking, “God’s Not Dead 2” operates at the level of your average middle-school play – except with far greater levels of upside-down logic and bald-faced intolerance for anyone not enraptured by the New Testament.