Regina Hall shines, but 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.' is too muted

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

Adamma Ebo’s directorial debut, “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.”, is a bracing and bold film that blends documentary style filmmaking into a traditional narrative to create a bone-dry comedy and social commentary that’s one part “The Office,” and two parts “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

The always excellent Regina Hall stars as Trinitie Childs, the long-suffering wife of disgraced pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown). The couple used to minister to a congregation of thousands in their Southern Baptist megachurch, Lee-Curtis preaching the prosperity gospel decked out in flamboyant three-piece suits, Trinitie smiling at the TV cameras from under her elaborate church hats.

After a sex scandal, they’ve been left preaching to a group of five and have hired a documentary crew to capture their comeback, planned for Easter Sunday, if it isn’t thwarted by the young upstarts at a new church, Heaven’s House, led by the Pastors Sumpter (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance).

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Ebo’s choice to only partially use mockumentary footage in this film is an interesting one. It allows her, as a filmmaker, to show us the Childs when the (documentary) cameras aren’t on, at breakfast, in the bedroom, and to highlight the way the couple turn on and off their perfect personas, demonstrated most clearly in tight, toothy grins.

Regina Hall, left, and Sterling K. Brown star in "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

But it also asks the viewer to switch back and forth as well, constantly calibrating between the overall narrative of this story and the documentary that’s being made within. It’s unlike, for example, a Christopher Guest comedy, where the entire film is the mockumentary, and perhaps it would have been a more consistent choice to keep the device going the entire time.

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” ultimately serves as a showcase for Hall’s incredible performance, which utilizes both her comedic and dramatic skills in equal measure. Some of the greatest commentary and comedy comes out of the extreme passive-aggression that bubbles between Trinitie and other women who attempt to out-“bless your heart” each other.

Hall’s ability to convey meaning and comedy through a look to the camera, a widening of her eyes or twitch of her mouth is masterful, and it’s chops that she has honed throughout her varied career, from “Scary Movie” to indie dramedies, to thrillers. Brown is also unsurprisingly remarkable, and he is given the chance to show off the comedic abilities only previously seen when he hosted “Saturday Night Live.”

But while the performances are towering, it feels like there’s something missing from “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.” There is a sense of waiting the entire film for the story to kick into gear, and it never quite gets going. We wait and wait to find out the details about the sex scandal, and while there is a final confrontation, it never feels all that satisfying, dramatically. While Ebo skewers the hypocrisy of the church as Lee-Curtis pushes his wife to the brink, there are other aspects of their ministry that are left less explored, like the materialistic "prosperity" of their word and lifestyle.

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Regina Hall, left, and Sterling K. Brown star in "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

In terms of the comedy, things never quite get as outlandish as it could be. It comes close to the edge, but doesn’t go over it, remaining arch and intellectual, resisting a full tilt into comedy, which is slightly unsatisfying for what it seems to promise.

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” signals a fresh new voice in writer/director Ebo, who taps into a unique world, ripe for big screen exploration. But this satirical take on religion is far more cerebral than laugh-out-loud funny, and leaves much potential material to pillory on the table.

‘HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL.'

2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Running time: 1:43