Salvation Boulevard should have committed to the path of dark comedy, lightweight farce or (it actually could have worked) no-nonsense noir. Instead, the movie wanders through all three genres without a cohesively satisfying tone. And as the good book sort of says, no movie can serve two masters, much less three.
The problem may be due to the fact that this project underwent an awful lot of “adapting” in the transition from Larry Beinhart’s novel. Director and co-screenwriter George Ratliff admits that he “strayed mightily” from the book, in which a Christian private investigator named Carl helps a Jewish defense lawyer prove the innocence of a confessed killer who is Muslim. There’s also a hunt for a murdered atheist professor’s missing manuscript that disproves God’s existence.
The movie has a born-again protagonist named Carl (Greg Kinnear), but here he is a church employee on the run after being unjustly accused of shooting the professor (Ed Harris). The real shooter, as we witness early on, is charismatic televangelist Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan). Megachurch Pastor Day wants Carl to take the rap so Day’s mission to build a planned Christian community called City on a Hill won’t be jeopardized. No defense lawyer, Muslim student or missing manuscript appear in the movie.
It’s become so easy to make fun of fundamentalists that a movie like this should do something more original than portraying followers of Jesus as freaks. Instead, Salvation Boulevard relies on the usual brainwashed/hypocrite/opportunist stereotypes that make holy-living heartlanders hate Hollywood. Naturally, Carl has his eyes opened to the foolishness of his faith by a pot-smoking and apparently godless free spirit (Marisa Tomei) who loves the Grateful Dead and doesn’t shave her armpits.
Jennifer Connelly is Carl’s rigidly religious wife Gwen, who is so wild-eyed assertive about her belief in Pastor Day that she refuses to consider the possibility her husband may be telling the truth. Megachurch cameraman Jerry (Jim Gaffigan) is perfectly willing to shoot Carl in the head unless given a sign from God. Plus there are the usual bit players who do things like regard the story of Noah’s ark as historical fact. Directors such as the Coen brothers or Alexander Payne may have been able to make this kind of thing seem sly and maybe even subversive, but here it only feels predictable.
Brosnan is frustrating as Pastor Day because he frequently seems oblivious to his surroundings. Although Brosnan and Kinnear showed quirky chemistry when they appeared together in 2008’s The Matador, there’s no similar connection here. Brosnan should have taken more evil glee in his character’s arrogant egomania, instead of acting alternately shell-shocked and hypnotized. Jim Carrey in full-on crazy mode could have knocked this part out of the pulpit.
Carl’s likable stepdaughter Angie is played by Isabelle Fuhrman, who was terrifically creepy as the title character in 2009’s Orphan. Angie has enough plain common sense to make her the movie’s most rational character.
This is more of a disappointing movie than an outright bad one. Salvation Boulevard‘s sin is that it doesn’t transcend a generic plot with the kind of style that may have redeemed it.