Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown give fully committed performances in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” so why does the film lack faith in itself?
“Honk for Jesus,” Adamma Ebo’s directorial debut based on her own short film, is centered on a pair ripe for parody: Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) and his loyal wife, Trinitie (Hall), leaders of an Atlanta-area Southern Baptist megachurch called Wander to Greater Paths. It takes about half a minute to realize Childs’ spiritual center is more designer label than Deuteronomy. Showing off their closets, Lee-Curtis gives thanks for being “blessed with some beautiful Prada.”
After a quick montage of brighter days for Wander to Greater Paths, “Honk for Jesus” catches up with the pastor and his wife on the heels of a scandal that has emptied their congregation of 25,000. Their faces are still bright, though, as they welcome a documentary crew outside the church to chronicle their revival, leading up to an Easter reopening. When Lee-Curtis steps in chewing gum and Trinitie asks the camerawoman to edit around that, she gets no reply. “Oh, that’s right,” she says. “You’re the fly-on-the-wall type.”
The mockumentary has always been a dependable way to satirize not just a character or two but a subset of society. After what Christopher Guest did to the world of dog shows and Rob Reiner did to rock bands, Ebo and her producer sister, Adanne Ebo, have aimed at the rich realm of megachurches, taking inspiration from a real 2010 scandal at Georgia’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.
But the art of the mockumentary is a funny thing. It has to look unrehearsed and seem real while, often, being meticulously planned. “Honk for Jesus,” though, only gestures at a mockumentary structure, and often simply abandons the premise. Some scenes are staged with a film crew hovering around, while others — like one of the couple in bed at night — are simply filmed like a movie, with no excuse for the camera’s presence.
There isn’t much that seems natural or lifelike in “Honk for Jesus,” including the church itself. Such a large congregation would have a large staff and more devoted parishioners — the kind of cast of characters that someone like Armando Iannucci would have a lot of fun weaving throughout the film. But “Honk for Jesus” has an empty, airless chamber piece quality, sticking largely to small scenes around the edges of the church that mostly trade on Lee-Curtis and Trinitie’s obvious hypocrisy.
But it’s not often a bad move to give actors like Hall and Brown lots of room to play, and they certainly bring passion to their performances. They aren’t given anywhere especially to go, though. Lee-Curtis’ closeted homosexuality is played more for laughs than for empathy.
The film’s keenest sense is how it draws nearer to Hall’s Trinitie, as her confidence in her husband steadily wavers. “Honk for Jesus” in the end doesn’t aim for anything like the madcap parody of, say, HBO’s riotous “The Righteous Gemstones,” but it may have been more successful if it took the approach of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” and kept its camera glued to the first lady of the church.
“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language and some sexual content. Running time: 102 minutes. Two stars out of four.