Salvation Boulevard (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
After a campus debate, Professor Blaylock (Ed Harris), an atheist, invites his opponent, Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan), an evangelical Christian, and Carl (Greg Kinnear), a former Grateful Dead devotee who became God’s follower, into his office to offer a proposal of co-authoring a book called “The Great Divide.” In theory, its contents would present their respective sides which could be beneficial their missions.
For Pastor Day, he hopes to bring non-believers to Christ and for Blaylock, he hopes believers can learn to see reason. However, just when the two are about to seal the deal, the pastor playfully aims an armed gun at the professor and accidentally presses the trigger. Carl and Pastor Day stare in horror at the lifeless body sprawled on the floor.
“Salvation Boulevard,” based on the screenplay by Douglas Stone and George Ratcliff, are peppered with very good ideas about the conflicting tenets of a religion by highlighting the sanctimoniousness and gullibility of its followers but it has one too many poorly executed characters which blurs its focus so consistently, its tone never quite aligns with the supposedly biting satirical jokes.
It is appropriate that Carl is almost always on camera because he serves as the questioning sheep. Kinnear does a wonderful job playing Carl as a man who is experiencing a crisis of faith; instead of going for easy histrionics to appear funny, the actor makes fresh choices and does the opposite.
In a handful of scenes, especially when Carl is forced under a spotlight by being the topic of conversation, directly or otherwise, he has a way of almost withdrawing into his invisible shell. Kinnear’s body language, even though his character is somewhat of a shy person, communicates plenty: Carl considers his history with sex and drugs as a stigma and so people in his community, even his family, cannot help but pick up on his private shame. He is a scarred man in that he has never been allowed to move on from his past. And yet although we feel for Carl, the screenplay is smart in not allowing us to pity him.
Despite a rather complex protagonist, the film is impaired by supporting characters who lack dimension. Since each of them has one goal, it is as if the writing felt obligated to follow their strands up to a certain point while not doing a very good job in staying with Carl’s story. For instance, there is a businessman named Jorge Guzman de Vaca (Yul Vazquez) clearly designed to provide a bridge between Carl—the sheep—and Pastor Day— the shepherd. While an intense character when things do not go his way, he is not utilized in such a way that he comes across crucial to the arc of the story, just a passerby who must be placed in a specific spot while looking stern when necessary and to be taken out when it is time for comedic or ironic punches.
A similar technique is executed with Honey Foster (Marisa Tomei), a security guard and former Deadhead fan. She is such an energetic character—for a lady who loves her weed—and it is awkward how she seems to just disappear right in the middle of the movie. We only hear about her again at the end when the subtitles inform us what eventually happens to her.
Based on the book by Larry Beinhart and directed by George Ratcliff, there are lines of dialogue in “Salvation Boulevard” that made me laugh hard. Even the more obvious jokes made me chuckle. When the funny does come, however, I was reminded how much sharper the material could have been if the script that removed unnecessary distractions for the sake of buying time.