They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and one can argue that igniting the hair-trigger volatility of the Fox News and Breitbart audience over your religious satire is just savvy marketing. Whipping the Bible Belt into frothy outrage over a movie can’t be bad surely? However, such histrionics lead to certain expectations which the film doesn’t meet. Faith Based isn’t a savage takedown of Christianity, but fundamentally a rather sweet and affectionate comedy about friendship and family that gently mocks religion as a business, not faith itself.
Faith Based centres on two old friends, Luke (Luke Barnett) and Tanner (Tanner Thomason). Both are in their 30s, but in the great tradition of the buddy comedy have resisted growing up with Lost Boy-like tenacity. They find a purpose when Luke has the idea of making money by entering the Christian movie market, on the grounds that they cost practically nothing to make yet are massively lucrative thanks to their inbuilt, and largely uncritical, audience. The duo soon realises that their scheme isn’t as straight-forward as they had presumed, which exposes previously undiscovered tensions in their friendship.
Presented as a mockumentary, influences such as Christopher Guest‘s more gentle efforts like A Mighty Wind and Waiting For Guffman are evoked, with the conceit of The Producers a clear spiritual forebear. While the pair’s idea reeks of cynicism, Luke and Tanner are presented as good-natured fools, which sands off the satirical edges somewhat. Cut-aways to the pair giving innocently effulgent interviews directly to the camera are undercut by the vox pops offered by the baffled friends and acquaintances roped in to help make the film. As with Guest’s work, a lot of the humour is derived from the chasm between enthusiasm and talent, and the protagonists’ imperviousness to their own absurdity. The rest comes from the tropes of the faith-based film industry itself, an easy enough target and evolution from the televangelist cash cow still milked for dark laughs by the likes of The Righteous Gemstones. A nice cameo from Margaret Cho sums up Faith Based‘s attitude to the films it sends up; “They don’t have to be bad. They just don’t have to be good.”
Barnett and Thomason have the chemistry you would expect of two long-term friends playing heightened versions of themselves and their easy charm is a key part of the relatively gentle tone. The film is also packed with cameos from the like of Anchorman‘s David Koechner as an unlikely 80s action hero and Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander as a shady self-help guru and pyramid scheme shyster. A particular highlight is Lance Reddick as Luke’s adopted father and the pastor of a modern church. Away from the central story, the reconnection of the pastor and the prodigal black sheep Luke is a subplot that gives Faith Based an emotional edge that many satirical stories lack.
For the most part, Faith Based is consistently amusing, with a wry tone. However, at times you wish it bared its teeth a little more. A lot of the punches feel pulled to the point where it feels like its targets are let off the hook. In the end, there is more than a little of the celebratory cinema underdog tale like The Disaster Artist or Dolemite is My Name. It’s not where you would expect the film to go given the publicity, but it is an endearing and charming little spin on the buddy comedy that would easily convert many of its knee-jerk detractors were they to give it a chance. Hopefully, the curtailing of the festival circuit that would raise its profile will be brief and it will find its audience, God-fearing or otherwise.