The other night I found myself re-watching “Roswell That Ends Well,” the Emmy-winning episode from season 3 of Futurama (aka the greatest animated show ever made). In the episode, the crew of the Planet Express inadvertently time travels back to Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Fry (the main character) meets his grandfather, who is a klutz on a military base. The episode becomes a delightful spoof of Back to the Future as Fry tries to save his grandfather from the numerous perils found on a military based. Then comes this quote:
This quote was a delightful surprise, and it makes perfect sense that the Futurama episode to namedrop Greg Kinnear won an Emmy. (I assume the quote itself refers to Greg starring in several mediocre movies in the four years after his Oscar nomination for As Good As It Gets (1997) One of these “great”movies is What Planet Are You From? and I can sense from here your excitement to watch it). I wish I could tell you my delight carried over as I watched Salvation Boulevard . But it very much did not. Salvation Boulevard was terrible and, like a Lemony Snicket novel, I will warn you to turn back before it’s too late. Sadly, not even Greg Kinnear could save this movie.
I rented Salvation Boulevard from my local library, where it always seems to be available (maybe that was a sign). The movie isn’t available to stream on Netflix or Hulu, and there is only a purchase option from Amazon. Sorry? On to the review!
Salvation Boulevard (2011)
The movie was written and directed by George Ratliff, and is based on a 2008 novel of the same name by Larry Beinhart. You may have missed it, since it briefly debuted in a small handful of theaters before quickly moving to video on demand. For a direct-to-DVD movie it has a surprisingly star-studded cast: Ed Harris, Pierce Brosnan, Jennifer Connelly, Marisa Tomei, Jim Gaffigan, and of course Greg Kinnear.
Salvation Boulevard follows Carl Vandermeer (Greg Kinnear), a one-time Deadhead, who leaves his life of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” finds God, and marries a high-energy Christian woman named Gwen (Jennifer Connelly). Together with Gwen’s teenage daughter and her father-in-law, the family attends a mega-church called the Church of The Third Millennium headed by Pastor Daniel Day (Pierce Brosnan).
Pastor Dan (if only you were as great as John Goodman’s Bible Salesman Dan) hopes to create an insular Westboro Baptist-like community called “City on a Hill.” While he does that, he bides his time debating prominent atheists. The movie opens with such a debate between Pastor Dan and Professor Peter Blaylock (Ed Harris). After the debate, the two retire to Blaylock’s office with Carl for a nightcap. Here’s Carl as a fish-out-of-water at said nightcap:
In the meeting, Dan accidentally shoots Blaylock. He encourages Carl to help him cover it up as a suicide and leave the body behind. Carl, with his seared conscience, calls the police and reports the incident.
What follows is…a mess. Dan plots with the church cameraman Jerry (Jim Gaffigan) to kill Carl. Jerry takes Jim to the desert to kill him, à la Breaking Bad, but Carl thwarts the murder attempt. Carl meets up with his family to tell them the truth of Blaylock’s death, but they don’t believe him so he flees (oh btw Blaylock isn’t dead, he’s just in a coma but Carl doesn’t know that). Carl plots an escape attempt with a former deadhead named Honey (Marisa Tomei), but is captured by Mexican crime lord Jorge Guzman de Vaca (Yul Vazquez). Jorge has videotape of Dan shooting Blaylock and wants Carl’s help to blackmail Pastor Dan. Carl flees this situation, but runs to the cops who are in cahoots with Pastor Dan. The cops try to kill him, but this also fails, and Carl escapes to find Pastor Dan bleeding out in the back of a Suburban at the site of “City on a Hill” where he has been left by Jorge. End Film. (This is literally how the movie abruptly ends, with images of each character and text to describe what becomes of him/her).
My best guess as to what went wrong with Salvation Boulevard is that it tried to be two things at once–a Coen Brothers-like black dramedy and a goofy religious satire–in a rushed 90 minutes. Carl is clearly meant to be cut from the same cloth as William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo or Richard Jenkins’ Ted in Burn After Reading--a mostly hapless, guileless character who is dragged into an ever-expanding web of compounding events. Usually these events involve a murder. But George Ratliff is most definitely not a Coen and the script is far sloppier than anything they have helmed. And since Salvation Boulevard simultaneously attempts goofy religious satire, the mood of the movie can never get dark enough for an atmosphere anywhere near as immersive as Fargo. And while we’re talking about the religious satire…
The religious satire is reductionistic and one-dimensional. Every character type is the simplest of stereotypes. A Deadhead worships the Grateful Dead through sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. A Christian doesn’t have any evidence for their faith, other than personal experiences. And atheist professors smugly win debates by citing the existence of disease. Such shallow characters produce shallow sets. The mega-church (of the Third Millennium) is more akin to Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church than most mega-churches. And the religious debate is what I imagine the debates to be like in God’s Not Dead, God’s Not Dead 2, and…wait for it…God’s Not Dead 3. Or what the real-life debate was actually like between Chip Hamm and Bill Nye (both of whom are my last choice to represent Christianity and science, respectively). It says something sad that I can make real-life connections with the movie, but even a little more depth to the characters and religious ideas may have made this movie better…but then again maybe not.
So what about Greg Kinnear’s Carl Vandermeer?
Carl Greg Vandermeer Kinnear
One nice thing about Kinnear’s Carl Vandermeer is the character’s name. Salvation Boulevard was filmed in parts of Ann Arbor and Dearborn, and Vandermeer is a clever nod to the many Christians in Michigan with Dutch heritage. However, this was probably unintentional as Vandermeer was simplified from the book’s Carl Van Wagener. And, of course, the movie’s fictional setting is supposed to be close enough to the Mexico border so that Van-dermeer can be Van-napped. (Aka kidnapped in a van and driven across the border).
One not-nice thing about Carl Vandermeer is that the crazy tonal changes of the movie never allow Kinnear to get in-character. Kinnear’s Carl is everything from a mopey bystander to a conflicted murder witness to a desperate fugitive. Compare this picture near the end of the movie with the earlier one, close to the movie’s start:
Kinnear does his best in every scene, but the movie’s script and pace don’t give his character enough space to get in rhythm. Carl’s sudden-onset desperation feels second-hand to Richard Hoover’s slow-build desperation in Little Miss Sunshine, which is crazy since running for your life should be a much more harrowing experience than the decline of a salesman. But here we are.
Carl Vandermeer also lacks confidence, and Kinnear is at his best when he injects his characters with confidence (think Sabrina or Stuck on You). My favorite Kinnear scene was probably his escape from the crime lord’s estate. His planned escape, which involves swapping out a DVD and keeping a door ajar with a swift placement of his Bible, gave me an all-too-brief reminder of the greatness of confident Greg Kinnear.
I won’t give this role the honor of “Kinnear Jeer,” as Greg’s performance was fine and the problems with his character were shared by others. Connelly opted for hysteria in her scenes, Brosnan (who was genuinely terrible) used different accents from scene-to-scene and randomly shouted Christian-sounding things, and Ed Harris was blessed to leave the movie when his character went into a coma after 10 minutes. Isabell Fuhrman, as Carl’s stepdaughter Angie, was easily the best part of Salvation Boulevard. Her character was simply defined as “weary of mother’s religion, science bookworm” and her quips about white nose syndrome and ice comets were maybe the only funny parts of the movie.
- Salvation Boulevard is easily the worst Greg Kinnear movie “we” have watched so far. My wife wouldn’t even watch it with me, so that’s a more collective we.
- The movie suffered from a hurried screenplay that sought to balance cheap Coen Brother mimicry with poor religious satire.
- Greg Kinnear was fine, but never got into rhythm due to the ping-ponging of his character. I expect him to be better in other religious movies, such as Dear God and Heaven is for Real, where his characters should (?!) have more consistent development.
- The movie barely escaped “Kinnear Jeer,” but sets a new, low benchmark.
- Next up: Let’s call this a detour from Kinnear’s otherwise brilliant career, which we’ll celebrate with Mystery Men. It’s better than all other superhero movies combined and is well worth the $3.99 to rent it on Amazon.
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