‘Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.’ can’t commit to its satirical mockumentary premise
The mockumentary used to seem like an innovative form of moviemaking. But what started with This Is Spinal Tap reaches its a low point with Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul., a film about Black megachurches in Atlanta. Mockumentaries live on in TV form in the hilarious What We Do In The Shadows and the sweet and charming Abbott Elementary. WWDITS continues to find new and clever ways to stretch the genre, while Abbott prefers to stay in the safe, network-friendly territory that The Office and Modern Family settled. Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. on the other hand, uses the camera crew as a framework, even though the crew’s presence doesn’t make sense, and then it often just abandons that premise altogether when the narrative goes into places that even an intrusive documentary director wouldn’t go, usually the bedroom.
HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL. ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Adamma Ebo
Written by: Adamma Ebo
Starring: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown
Running time: 102 mins
Sterling K. Brown from ‘This is Us’ and elsewhere plays a disagraced megachurch preacher, and Regina Hall is his glamorous wife and partner in spiritual crime, if not in the crimes that disgraced him. They live in an absurdly luxurious mansion, have closets full of designer clothes, and drive an endless series of sportscars. In the first sign that this film doesn’t have it all completely together, their church, while large, is also kind of run-down, and doesn’t really seem to support the lifestyle they lead. They are rich almost beyond imagining.
For 30 minutes or so, the movie plays coy with the circumstances of Brown’s downfall. But once we figure out what’s actually going on, his actions don’t warrant a satirical treatment. He needs serious intervention and psychological help, not the light ribbing that a mockumentary usually provides. It confronts the audience with a tonal problem. At moments, Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. wants audiences to laugh at the excess and hypocrisy, but this situation isn’t actually funny, so instead it just feels uncomfortable.
The script also fails to fill in the margins with memorable supporting characters. Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries work so well because of the memorable side characters filling in the margins around the main narrative. But there are no Fred Willards or Jennifer Coolidges to be found in Honk for Jesus. Brown and Hall take up 95 percent of the screen time. The movie takes great care to introduce us to other characters, but then fails to give them big personalities or memorable lines and drops them as quickly as they came. Only a pair of slimy younger preachers on the make get more than one appearance, but their motivations are obvious, and they’re just not funny.
That said, Brown gives an energetic and creepy performance as a disgraced “man of God” who cannot reconcile his sexual desires and his lust for status and wealth. He puts on an extended temper tantrum, which occasionally gets tiresome but is always watchable, and never evolves. After a while, you just want to say: go to jail already.
Hall, on the other hand, gives extraordinary layers and depth to her character, a woman who clearly married wrong and then stayed in the marriage for the wrong reasons. She obviously likes her jewels and her hats and her expansive estate, but at her core she’s probably actually a good Christian who wants to do the right thing by her flock, and her man. The longer she stays around, the further away her redemption goes. It’s a great, nuanced character study from a genuine actress and movie star, but it’s also a one-woman show. She has no one to really bounce off but Brown’s strutting rooster. A breakfast scene with her mother is realistic, but also kind of bland and unfunny, a repeated problem with this picture when Hall and Brown aren’t on the screen together.
The title refers to a “roadside ministry” that Brown conceives of at the last second to try and save the church from disaster. “Disgraced preacher turns to roadside ministry to try to save his megachurch” is actually a funny comedic presence. But the movie doesn’t even broach that idea, despite it being the core of the plot, until three-quarters of the way into its runtime. And then it wastes most of that with Hall doing something called “praise mime’, a gag that it can’t commit to either. It lands with a thud and then the movie abandons it so Hall can yell at the documentary crew, which hasn’t even existed as a real character up until that point, about being moral hypocrites.
They don’t know what they’re filming, we don’t know what we’re watching. From the protagonists down to the ticket-takers, everyone in the theater, onscreen and off-, ends up lost and confused.