‘Salvation Boulevard’: No rapture

July 15, 2011

There’s no point devoting much time to thinking about what went wrong with “Salvation Boulevard.” The answer is simple: everything.

Satire, particularly religious satire, needs a deft touch and a bold instinct, two things that completely escaped director George Ratliff with this film. In cowriting the script from a Larry Beinhart novel, he apparently assumed that the plot alone was enough and that the jokes would take care of themselves. Wrong and wrong.

The plot involves a former Deadhead named Carl, who has given up one path – following the Grateful Dead – for another: being a sheep in the flock of megachurch leader Pastor Dan (Pierce Brosnan). Carl is apparently a special specimen because Pastor Dan singles him out of the audience while debating one of those college-professor atheists that rule our college campuses (played with great scenery chewing pleasure by Ed Harris, who is in far too little of the film).

For no apparent reason, Pastor Dan invites Carl to accompany him to the office of the professor after the debate. And when Pastor Dan accidentally shoots the professor with an antique pistol – then positions the gun to make it look like a suicide before making an escape from the scene with Carl – Carl is his witness and, potentially, his accuser.

Which is why Pastor Dan sets Carl up to be the patsy, spreading the story that, in fact, Carl was the one who shot the professor. Then the pastor enlists one of his henchmen (Jim Gaffigan) to take Carl out and shoot him.

Things theoretically should escalate into dark farce. But the writing and pace are so slack and the performances so wan that the only real interest is spotting the slumming movie star who pops up unexpectedly. Oh, look, there’s Jennifer Connelly as Carl’s nutjob wife – and Ciaran Hinds as his grouchy, uptight father-in-law. And hey – isn’t that Marisa Tomei as a campus cop with a secret Deadhead past of her own?

But to what end? There aren’t even any decent Grateful Dead jokes because, obviously, the Dead are a device, not a source of humor. There’s so little comic energy here that – well, there’s actually a comedy vacuum created by this film that sucks the life out of everything it touches.

“Salvation Boulevard” is soulless and laugh-free. How movies this dreadful – with this many good people in the cast – find their way into the world is as good an argument for the existence of Satan as any other.

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