“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” is a dark comedy about a prosperity gospel megachurch preacher and his wife’s “comeback” from a fall from grace. First-time feature director Adamma Ebo got very lucky that Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall were dazzled enough by her script that they signed on. They’re so good that the viewer, like Ebo, can lose track of the fact this was supposed to be funny.
Hall, most recently impressive in “Master” and on TV’s “Nine Perfect Strangers,” and “This is Us” Emmy-winner Brown give us brilliantly-detailed portrayals of a prayerful power couple, brittle but hanging on, putting on brave, smiling faces because they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get back what they just lost.
We see and hear Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs speak and “perform,” and the mansion, the “beautiful Bugatti,” the Prada suits and the gigantic Wander to Greener Paths church need no explanation. He is electric in the pulpit, beaming and upbeat, handsome and the epitome of preaching charisma.
He peacocks his latest outfit — “Don’t it look like I’ve been favoring the Lord?”
And sitting at his side, often in chairs that would put Buckingham Palace to shame, is his beaming, cheerleading, stylishly-turned-out Trinitie, aka “First Lady” Childs, his beautiful wife.
But when we meet them, it’s in an empty megachurch. He is hyped-up about the documentary film crew, seen once and almost never heard, that’s just started to follow them around, “fly on the wall” style, to capture their “comeback.”
A montage of TV coverage buzzes about the “scandal” that brought them down. But Atlanta’s Black “Jim and Tammy Fay” are hellbent on winning back the congregation that abandoned them, certain that their showmanship and earnest “self-forgiveness” will let them put whatever threatens to take all this away “behind” them.
But the film crew captures the tension in their desperation and the veneer that each wears over their egos about this humiliating state of affairs and the fragile, brittle state of their marriage.
Pastor Lee-Childs has a profane flip-out over stepping in gum in his designer Italian shoes. “First Lady” snaps “won’t nothing ever confirmed” about the sexual misconduct scandal that emptied their church and took a bite out of their bank accounts — “settlement” money.
And we see the glower in their eyes — beaming faces notwithstanding — when they speak of the on-the-rise Heaven’s Home Church down the road, and the righteous young preaching couple (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance) who opportunistically swooped in and swept away much of their congregation.
As Lee-Childs trots out ideas to get attention for their big Easter Sunday reopening and rehearses in front of Trinitie and “The Devout 5” — the congregants who refused to bail on them — their boundless optimism frays under the strain, Lee-Childs’ “scandal” explains itself and First Lady’s demands for him to “get it all back” turn strident.
Hall and Brown are never less than credible, so much so that we feel for these two in those moments when we forget we’re not supposed to. They create a couple that has endured even as it has made its own allowances for disappointments and concessions to “whatever works” that keeps them together. Brown’s job here is to sparkle and sizzle with energy and charisma. Hall’s is to let us see the bargain Trinitie’s struck in her mind.
The “mockumentary” format of the film works, but has felt played if not played-out since “The Office” had its run. Then Ebo takes us into the bedroom and we start to notice that she’s not consistent in showing us only what the “fly on the wall” filmmakers see.
But writer-director Ebo’s most obvious mistake here is assuming all of this is funny, just in its presentation. In post-hypocrisy American Christianity, a “scandal” that the scandalous expect their gullible followers to ignore is old hat. Greedy, smirking preachers lying and fund-raising from the pulpit, inveighing against “the homosexual agenda” and demanding charity and forgiveness when they’re not the first to offer the same isn’t funny any more.
And expecting laughs from the “purple Prada, peach Prada, periwinkle Prada” and “peal Prada” suits and Trinitie’s outlandish (ish) hats is twenty years of Tyler Perry movies out of date.
The deeper into this story that the movie gets and the darker things turn, the more we see this tale the way the stars do — as a tragedy only in the eyes of its two main characters. Brown and Hall elevate this low-hanging-fruit simply because they have to.
Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
Cast: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown and Nicole Beharie
Credits: Scripted and directed by Adamma Ebo. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:42