“Believe Me” has cynical, snarky frat boys who think nothing of stealing, drinking and chasing other guys’ girlfriends. It has them conning gullible true believers with a fake Christian charity, mocking the conventions of modern worship and the naivete of those attracted to it.
It has profanity.
“Christians HATE swear words,” the frat boys discover, “but LOVE swearing.”
This is not a Billy Graham brand faith-based film. It hides its intent behind a PG-13 edge. And if it’s not convincing as either a find-one’s-faith parable or clever spoof of pop Christianity, at least it’s relevant.
Sam, played by Alex Russell (“Carrie”), is a fresh-faced pledge chair of his college fraternity, a guy headed to law school if his financial aid comes through. Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) plays the bottle-in-his-desk financial aid officer who gives him the bad news.
“Son, stop thinking about your dreams being crushed as a BAD thing…Think of this as the first day in the rest of your pathetic life!”
An evening church service gives Sam inspiration. They’re raising money for missionaries…to go to Hawaii. If Christians can be talked into sending pretty coeds to the island paradise, they can be suckered into anything, he reasons.
With several of his financially-strapped frat brothers, Sam invents a charity to provide fresh water for African villages, “Get Wells Soon.” He and his mates — Miles Fisher, Max Adler and Sinqua Walls (“Shark Night 3D”) — put on a show, make their pitch. And despite being clumsy and insincere, they score.
What’s more, veteran pitchman Ken (Christopher MacDonald), who runs a touring crusade, sees them and hires them to take their message all over the Bible Belt. On that tour, from Atlanta to Dallas, we see Tyler (Walls) emerge as the conscience of this con job, with pretty tour manager Callie (Johanna Braddy) and diva Christian rocker Gabriel (Zachary Knighton) as the only two insiders these crooks have to fool as they skim the offering plate.
The presence of Offerman, whose disdain for organized religion drips off the pages of his self-help auto-biography, “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” suggests this script might have looked like “Saved!” or “Leap of Faith,” hard-nosed satires of the Christian Industrial Complex. But the frat boys are never as rowdy as that description suggests. And their lack of concern about stealing suggests the belief that non-Christians have no clue about the difference between right and wrong.
What works, sometimes hilariously, are the “God Squad’s” power-point presentations to each other, salesmen showing their market research to reveal how to pass for true believers and fleece such believers out of their cash.
What do you do with your hands in mid-praise? There’s “the gecko” (arms stretched out at your side), “the straight jacket,” “the Shawshank” (raised up high) or “the casual five,” in which you look like “you’re high-fiving God.”
Buzzwords and phrases in sermons and prayer can quickly close the sale — “Father, Lord…Father God, Creator.”
But the cynicism is rarely sharp enough and the conversion story arc is clumsy. And frankly, the young cast is not rowdy or charismatic enough to match such vets as Offerman and MacDonald, who walk off with their scenes without even trying.
It takes a leap of faith to make “Believe Me,” notorious for an unconventional marketing strategy that seemed to offer money to critics for writing about it (not me), into anything other than a pulled punch of a comedy. It’s a “nice try” that probably won’t please either Christians or those who come to laugh at them.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language.
Cast: Alex Russell, Johanna Braddy, Miles Fisher, Christopher MacDonald, Zachary Knighton, Nick Offerman
Credits: Directed by Will Bakke, screenplay by Michael B. Allen, Will Bakke. A Gravitas release.
Running time: 1:33