(Now playing at the Embarcadero Cinemas in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley. Opens Aug 19 at the Ken in San Diego and the Chez Artiste in Denver.)
By Richard von Busack
Actors who get dismissed as over the top or a joke provide some of the happiest moments in a theater. The perhaps ever so slightly broad Vincent Price was sometimes more entertaining than Laurence Olivier. Watching the original Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (recently available after years in cruddy public domain video in a new DVD package by Alameda’s own Johnny Legend).
you can sometimes see why then-movie critic Graham Greene called Tod Browning (a ham of Chrysler Building proportions) one of the greatest actors alive.
Hence Pierce Brosnan: criminally underrated. In the uneven but spirited Salvation Boulevard he gets a chance to act up as a sinister and rich televangelist called Dan Day. The pastor is trembling on the verge of a giant real-estate deal for the construction of an all-Christian suburb. This looser than loose adaptation of a novel by Larry Beinhart also tells of Carl (Greg Kinnear) a hapless convert who is framed for a crime Dan committed. To reinforce Carl’s silence, Don manipulates the people around him: Carl’s pious wife (Jennifer Connelly), his tough, buzz-cut, Members’ Only jacket wearing father in law Joe (Ciaran Hinds, excellent) and Pastor Day’s thug-like enforcer (Jim Gaffigan). The only monkey wrench in the plan is a goofy but sweet campus policeman (Marisa Tomei) who, like Carl, was once a Deadhead.
Director George Ratliff knows a little something about this end of televangelism having done Hell House, about the Trinity Assembly of God Church’s evangelical spin on Halloween. That 1991 documentary is an essential movie about Satan’s Holiday, and this ingratiating fictional movie has the details all right. Ratliff films in remote parts of Michigan, so the landscape looks forlorn enough and unfamiliar enough that you never get a bead on a life outside this mega-church, “The Church of the Third Millennium” which is absolutely the way it should have been done, so that there’s no apparent way out of Day’s grip.
The problem with Salvation Boulevard is that you see a cult movie breaking out of what could have been the kind of thing the Coen Brothers do to perfection: the story that’s neither quite a dark comedy or a thriller, but something right down between those two genres. (Gaffigan’s performance looks like failed John Goodman.)
Salvation Boulevard is salted with Grateful Dead tunes, and the film’s happiest moment is the beloved Tomei wriggling around in pleasure in her van listening to Jerry Garcia singing “Brown Eyed Women.” Another tune here, “Friend of the Devil” seems to reflect the plot, since Dan seems to be getting cell phone calls from the Dark Lord; with great wit, Ratliff cuts to Tim Curry’s Tandoori-colored Satan in the bad movie Legend to give the mystery caller a face.
Salvation Boulevard generously concedes that, if it weren’t for charlatans like Day, evangelicals wouldn’t be more dangerous than your average Deadhead.
The terrific cast shows the potential of the material, as well as the thirst for actors in these times to give the mega-churches a little revenge tithing.
Having Hinds as father to Connelly is ingenuity itself (their eyebrows match like DNA samples). Isabelle Fuhrman, who had the lead role in the invigoratingly preposterous Orphan, plays Connelly’s daughter. Fuhrman shows a lot of strength in the slightly macabre parts Winona Ryder excelled at.
It’s Brosnan himself, whinnying in delighted facetiousness and exuding oily faux compassion, who takes the prize. Day’s accent is the most bogus thing about him—the guiltier this pastor gets, the more Cockney he sounds. It’s not that Brosnan is a great actor in the ordinary sense, and some things are beyond him: one remembers how he wrestled with the tougher acting scenes in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. But once he’s in his range, few can match him, either as suave hero or dirty dog.
And the proof is that the film starts to fall apart without him. Salvation Boulevard’s shaky last third, ends with a sloppy “Where Are They Now” title cards/ This cult film in the making is ultimately one that fans will cut a deal with, overlooking the parts that don’t work as well as a mood that gets terminally blown. I’m just as certain that it’ll be someone’s favorite movie as I am that most people won’t know what to make of it.