To step out of one’s comfort zone can be a wonderful thing, or a gesture fraught with peril. For evidence of the dangers, look no further than the desperate Salvation Boulevard. A comedy with a religious fundamentalist bent, from a director accustomed to serious fare and starring actors not generally known for their comic chops, the film tries so hard to reach heights of absurdist mania that it falls flat.
To be fair, star Pierce Brosnan killed in The Matador, Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny and Greg Kinnear has been around the comedy block before (with Brosnan in Matador, among others). But, with the exception of Kinnear – who handles the simple everyman shtick with aplomb, as usual – they’re not ideal for a screwball picture that endeavors to blend the slapstick of Sturgess and Sellers’ manic genius with pitch-black, anti-religious satire.
Director George Ratliff (Joshua, Hell House), who co-wrote the screenplay with Douglas Stone, knows fundamentalism better than comedy. The film centers on Deadhead turned religious family man Carl (Kinnear), who becomes an unwitting patsy over the course of the nightmarish day after Pastor Dan (Brosnan), head of their Arizona megachurch, accidentally shoots noted atheist Dr. Paul Blaylock (Ed Harris) in the head and concocts an elaborate framing of Carl for the crime.
This is a desperate, rambling air to the proceedings that only grows starker as the picture wears on, with the pace quickening and the frenzy of mugging reaching a crescendo of epically silly proportions. The movie seems to be intoxicated by how funny it thinks it is, gleefully descending further and further into a swell of hyperactivity, with each new scene and added development seemingly engineered to one-up the last.
The filmmaker identifies several one-dimensional conceits – Brosnan’s slick salesman-like bluster, Pastor Dan’s belief that an “unknown” caller is the devil, Tomei’s mellowed out Deadhead stoner, incompetent fanatical henchmen – and zealously hammers the audience with them, without the good sense of making sure that the pieces fit. The actors are hampered by that steadfast commitment, which forces them to pitch their performances at uncomfortably-raised volumes, as if shouting, “look how funny we are.”
For a picture like Salvation Boulevard to really work, there needs to be a tinge of nasty, biting truth surrounded by graceful comic craziness. Find actors up for taking over-the-top material and making it their own. Generate a screenplay that regards its characters are humans, not just pawns subject to the plot’s whims. Ratliff’s film is furious and flat, commotion for commotions sake without the good sense to abandon gags that just aren’t working.
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