If you’ve ever attended a southern Black Baptist megachurch like the one in Adamma Ebo’s spirited, occasionally funny but unfocused satire Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul, then perhaps you’ll appreciate some of the sly humor at play. For this isn’t a film that goes big with the jokes; the funniest bits, of which there should have been more, come from the characters sometimes-futile attempts to stay humble and holy when all they really want to do is unleash a barrage of sinful verbal assaults. To attend one of these churches and witness their many contradictions is to understand them. Ebo and her talented cast of Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall clearly get it. It’s just too bad they couldn’t find a way to get laughs out of it.
Brown, one of the most refined, polished actors working today is clearly having the time of his life as pastor Lee-Curtis Childs, one of those TV holy men who believes firmly that one’s dedication to God reaps tangible awards, seen in flashy Prada and Armani suits. He and his wife, the “First Lady” Trinitie Childs (Hall) literally sit on thrones of gold. As far as over-the-top church leaders go, the Childs’ are a notch above Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker of The Eyes of Tammy Faye. They’re like the Don King of spiritual couples, boasting about their gaudy lifestyle paid in full by the money in their coffers.
In the vein of Christopher Guest’s mockumentary comedies such as Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, the Childs’ are followed around by a documentary crew filming what they hope will be a puff piece about their comeback to the top. Why do they need it? Multiple sex scandals against Lee-Curtis have cost them their entire congregation, save a very faithful few, and now they’re in need of some divine intervention ahead of their big reopening on Easter Sunday.
“Oh, you’re the fly on the wall type”, Trinitie says to the camera crew after Lee-Curtis, rather symbolically, steps in some chewing gum on the way to church, demanding an edit that will not happen. It’s a dynamic they’ll soon come to get used to.
However, Ebo, directing the film based on her own short film, doesn’t stick to her guns. The filmmaker has zero faith in the material on multiple fronts, and despite really game, often hilarious demonstrative performances, it becomes a problem too big to ignore. First, the format isn’t consistent at all. If you’re going to attempt a Guest-style mockumentary you have to roll with it, create humor and tension from the aforementioned fly-on-the-wall perspective. It’s okay to have drama between the subject and the director, and there’s a lot of it here, but when Ebo strays and returns to a typical comedy style, it hits you over the head and just feels off.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul has something to say about the moral bankruptcy within these megachurches, using faith to rob from poor communities looking to them for spiritual guidance. Lee-Curtis, from the moment we see him, is a huckster whether he admits it or not. Trinitie is the ultimate enabler, and despite some hesitancy that seems to about whether to believe her triflin’ husband, she sticks around because she adores the fame. But Ebo doesn’t go very deep in exploring this at all for 90% of the film before going very heavy-handed with it in the final minutes, as if making up for lost time. The allegations against Lee-Curtis, including one that involves a certain amount of self-hatred, are never used as more than a laugh line. Such as it is.
Thank goodness for Brown and Hall, however. It’s something to see the poised Brown dancing in his shiny Crayola suits, grinning a toothy grin that would make the Joker jealous. Lee-Curtis is comically deluded and will go to his grave thinking that his piety has earned him wealth and that any indiscretions are to be forgiven. He’s so drunk on his own holy power that he can’t see how ridiculously phony he looks to those on the outside, and at least one on the inside.
Hall’s brilliance as Trinitie is some of the finest work of her career. Watch her flip like a switch as Trinitie goes from the stunning realization of her husband’s ignorance and back to the smiling trophy wife who will forever be a supporting player. In one moment, Hall can be showing off a closet of beautifully adorned and very large hats (“God don’t like ugly, ya’ll.”), and the next having the kind of emotionally raw breakdown that makes your heart hurt. Regina Hall is such a genius at manipulating our emotions that she can do it even when the script doesn’t afford her nearly enough. She’s been great too often to call her a revelation, but in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul it’s safe to say that Hall is worthy of an “Amen”.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul opens in theaters on September 2nd.