This year has been a big year for the Evangelical Chest Pigs. “The eyes of Tammy Faye”, a fictionalized version of the Bakker’s money-peddling lifestyle, won Jessica Chastain an Oscar and the docuseries “The Way Down” exposed the disturbing, if tragic, story of church-turned-cult leader Gwen Shamblin Lara and her controversial practices. It was only a matter of time before the filmmakers turned this subject into a satire intended to explore a subject which, in real life, is ironically synonymous with deceit, greed and all that religion is not. not meant to represent. Like a car accident, it’s hard not to take your eyes off it (or stare at it in one sitting).
Writer-director Adamma Ebo approaches this subject of biblical proportions with “Honk for Jesus. Save your soul,” an unfortunately titled mockumentary that glistens in the light of its leads, but is clouded by its stagnant script and meandering moral. Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall are the God-fearing scumbags this time, husband-and-wife church leaders Lee-Curtis Childs and Trinitie Childs who rent cameras to capture their every move as they plan their comeback after an outrageous fall from grace. Lee-Curtis was accused of undisclosed and quickly denied improper conduct, forcing the power couple to halt services at their mega-church. As history has proven time and time again, televangelists are often defined by their hypocrisy: people claiming to do God’s work and instead robbing the poor to enrich their own pockets, and children are not different.
Like the aforementioned films that came before it, “Honk” makes it clear that it’s not the male culprit who will shock audiences with his greedy betrayal. Fair or not, we expect such things from men in power, even if that power is quote-unquote ordained by God Himself. Brown portrays Lee-Curtis with a healthy dose of recklessness and an over-inflated ego that’s a joy to watch in action. It is all in excess. He makes no attempt to hide his love – and extreme addiction – to designer clothes, and he becomes uncomfortably close to the young men who adore him while exposing the sins of homosexuality. Although he has cameras documenting his every move, he is unable to respond to what he has done wrong or acknowledge his own human flaws, trapped by hubris, hubris and narcissism.
Our fascination, and the writer-director’s lens, lies with Trinitie, the good wife who sat in the front row for years, Sunday hat securely in place with a smile glued indefinitely to her perfectly hydrated, made-up face. Like Tammy Faye before her, there is an undeniable bond. The lifestyle, after all, is too sweet to give up without a fight. The “combat” is actually a frantic race with their sweet-talking competitors. The Sumpters (Conphidance, Nicole Beharie) are former parishioners who started their own house of prayer, acquiring many members displaced by the Childs scandal. The film’s greatest conflict stems from the competition that inherently exists between the two rival houses, one much younger than the other, but on the same path to sin.
Hall gives an impassioned performance, delivering the film’s finest moment – a “Mad as Hell” monologue that showcases his genius as an actor. But its true versatility is proven by the intercut comedy. She makes even the most ridiculous acts of Trinity seem convincing. We almost believe that, in the real world, a woman of this stature and vanity would push a statue of Jesus on a cart through the parking lot in high heels and her best Sunday attire. The metaphor is, of course, that she is married not just to her husband, but to her husband’s pursuit of Jesus, often putting in more work and manual labor than the preacher himself.
In another laugh-out-loud exchange, Trinitie has a tense confrontation with an old friend who abandoned ship when it began to sink. They meet, elsewhere, in the shopping center where Trinitie has just pined for a new collection of derby hats. Although they seem civil, “blessed” is used less as a blessing and more as a barbed wire insult, thrown around as if each could physically stab the other with it.
“Honk”, while smart and timely, misses the mark when it comes to the impression he ultimately makes. There’s not enough conflict to carry viewers through to the disappointing ending, making a social message groan less than the roar one might have hoped for. It would have been a gripping short if the feature had been cut down to a quarter of the length and focused on a tour of their budding bourgeois home and perhaps the baptism scene, which is brilliantly grumpy and bordering on sacrilege in every way. the mockumentary is meant to be. While Brown and Hall are exactly as good as you’d expect them to be, “Honk” fails to convert anyone in the audience.
“Honk for Jesus. Save your soul.” is in theaters now.