Review: Deadheads, Bible-Thumpers Collide in a Bewildered ‘Salvation Boulevard’

Mocking extremists is about as easy as finding a needle in a needlestack, so why isn’t this Greg Kinnear vehicle funnier?

Crazy Christians and pot-smoking Deadheads clash in George Ratliff’s sometimes funny but mostly uneven religious satire, “Salvation Boulevard.” While they inspire fear and terror at the polls, Evangelicals have inspired laughs in movies like “Easy A” and “Saved!” but mocking extremists is about as easy as finding a needle in a needlestack.

Carl Vanderveer (Greg Kinnear), a Grateful Dead fan reborn, thinks that being a Deadhead is like joining a church — a community of people connected by a spiritual quest, coming together in celebration and commitment to a, shall we say, higher cause.

He leads a withering life in a rural western town with his obsessive wife, Gwen (Jennifer Connelly) and their surprisingly even-keeled daughter. They are parishioners at the Church of the Third Millennium, founded by Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan), who is, wait for it, a charismatic hypocrite.

Carl witnesses an accidental shooting committed by Pastor Dan who, true to form, later tries to pin it on the ex-Deadhead. Carl’s faith is rocked as Pastor Dan turns the community against him, even sending out a puffy hit man in the form of an Old Testament–spewing Jim Gaffigan.

If none of this sounds familiar to fans of the 2008 book by Larry Beinhart, on which this film is based, that’s because in the book, Vanderveer is a private detective investigating charges against a Muslim student accused of murdering a professor who questioned the existence of God.

Huh? How did these two stories get so far apart? Publishers Weekly called the book a “splendid religious legal thriller,” while its film adaptation comes off as a tone-deaf Coen Brothers wannabe. (When asked what the two versions had in common, Beinhart reportedly quipped, “The title.”)

Kinnear takes center stage as the affable shnook no one will listen to. A cartoonish, baffled antihero who mainly reacts to events around him, Carl seldom drives the action until the third act. And while it’s no easy task anchoring a movie with such a flaccid character, Kinnear gives it his level best. His performance tends toward a bewilderment that fits the character but also seems to reflect the movie’s conflicting tonal issues between film noir and satire, a line that the aforementioned Coens have made a career of treading gracefully.

As Pastor Dan, Brosnan brings verve and egotism to the screen but struggles with his American accent. Connelly gets some harrowing scenes as a shrill and devout housewife, while Marisa Tomei exudes a mellow brand of seduction as a hippie temptress out to lure Carl back into Jerry Garcia’s psychedelic fold.

Writer-director Ratliff made the superb documentary “Hell House,” about a Halloween attraction set up by Evangelical Christians in a Texas town. That annual spook-house included warnings about the evils of homosexuality, abortion, and AIDS, none of which seemed as scary as the members of the church sponsoring the event.

Raised among Christians himself, Ratliff claims “Salvation Boulevard” treads a fine line when it comes to poking fun of believers. But how is it not flat-out mockery when Pastor Dan is afraid to answer continuous phone calls from an unknown party, thinking it’s Satan himself on the line?

“Salvation Boulevard” admittedly boasts a few funny bits, but with such a strong cast and compelling source material, you can’t help wondering why it isn’t a better movie.