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A wing and a prayer – ‘Faith Based’

October 11, 2020
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There’s something to be said for cinematic surprises.

It isn’t often that you get a film that not only exceeds your expectations with regard to overall quality, but also in terms of the spirit of the thing. These are the movies that manage to deliver something … more. Movies that somehow give you what you want while also giving you something you didn’t know you wanted until you got it.

That’s where I landed with the new film “Faith Based,” now available through assorted VOD services. Directed by Vincent Masciale from a script by Luke Barnett (who also stars), it’s a comedy about a pair of slacker buddies who come up with a get-rich-quick scheme revolving around making a Christian movie.

Now, you’d be forgiven for expecting a film with this kind of premise to be mean-spirited and/or cynical. But “Faith Based” couldn’t be further from that – the satire here is very much punching upward, taking shots at the greed and opportunism of the world rather than the well-meaning and good-hearted among us. It is also a first-rate and quite funny buddy comedy, as well as a smart look at the spit-and-baling-wire world of independent filmmaking – charming and offbeat and very good.

Luke (Barnett) is adrift. He’s living in Reseda, wondering what it is he’s meant to do with his life. He works as a pool cleaner, but he’s always in search of a path to wealth. His current hustle is a retail pyramid scheme built around selling weight loss tea, a company headed by Luke’s entrepreneurial idol Nicky Steele (Jason Alexander, “My Boyfriend’s Meds”), who we see periodically in snippets of his buzzword-heavy and vaguely nonsensical inspirational recordings.

Luke’s best friend is Tanner (Tanner Thomason, “The Stand at Paxton County”), a bartender whose life has also stalled somewhat, though he’s fairly content. His bar is where Luke hangs out, along with the other regulars, a motley crew that includes the usually-pickled Herman (Richard Riehle, “Pilot Error”) and Brandy (Carly Craig, TV’s “American Housewife”), who is involved in the movie business in an undefined way (though the Luke/Tanner theory is that it’s porn).

Luke’s father is Pastor Mike (Lance Reddick, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”), who leads a small church in town. Luke struggles with his relationship with his dad – he’s adopted and feels as though he’s something of a disappointment to his father. At a family dinner, Pastor Mike mentions the church’s financial difficulties and muses about how another church managed to turn around its money woes by backing a Christian film.

This is Luke’s light bulb moment. He enlists Tanner and a group of their friends to help him make a faith-based film of their own, one that could make them rich while also helping his father’s church. They settle on an idea – the first prayer in space – and undertake to make a movie, using their cronies as the crew and holding out hope that they can land the big star they want – specifically, the ‘80s action movie legend Butch Savage (David Koechner, TV’s “F Is for Family”).

But making a movie is far from easy. Luke and Tanner encounter plenty of obstacles along the way – obstacles that could impact not just the movie they are making, but their very friendship. Could this movie – intended to bring so many together – ultimately prove to tear them all apart?

Just as you shouldn’t judge a book solely by its cover, you shouldn’t judge a film solely by its title. “Faith Based” might give the Christian film world some gentle ribbing, but it is all in good fun – Masciale, Barnett and the rest are more concerned with getting laughs than taking shots. Don’t get me wrong – there’s some solid satirizing of the Christian film world (represented largely by a hilariously reductionist executive played by comedian Margaret Cho) – but the movie isn’t interested in some kind of ham-fisted takedown. Instead, what we get is more of a buddy comedy crossed with a parodic look at indie filmmaking in general.

There are a LOT of laughs here. And yes, some of them poke fun at Christian entertainment (including some great goofs in the movie-within-a-movie and a spectacular parody of Christian rock that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling). However, it is the comedic exploration of independent filmmaking that really anchors the film’s humor, rife with the sorts of smart-dumb jokes that I personally find delightful.

The relationship at the film’s center is what really powers the proceedings. Barnett and Thomason are an exceptional pairing, evoking the amiable slackitude that defines so many long-term male friendships. The juxtaposition of aspiration and apathy is note-perfect – we all have guys like these in our lives, guys who want to be successful but don’t necessarily want to have to try too hard. Their chemistry is apparent in every frame, making this all a very pleasant hang.

The supporting players do their parts as well. Reddick is an anchoring presence, providing a bedrock of sorts; he plays it straight without ever undermining the fundamental goofiness of it all, something that certainly isn’t nearly as easy to pull off as he makes it seem. Folks like Riehle and Craig and the rest do wonderful work filling in the gaps, helping to capture both the humor and the heart of the story being told.

Koechner is a ranting, raving delight – we see him numerous times in the context of his old movies, spouting cornball action nonsense and gleefully firing guns. He’s largely separate from the rest of the action, yet very much a part of the film’s fabric.

And then there’s Jason Alexander, who straight up goes for it in a magnificent way. Sporting a questionable toupee and some real snake oil salesman energy, he is a full-on hoot. He’s particularly great when he’s delivering his self-helpy nuggets of convoluted wisdom, aphorisms that sound vaguely profound while also being utter nonsense.

“Faith Based” is relatively rare in that it clearly respects the targets at which it aims while still managing some entertaining hits. It is clever without being glib and never condescends even as it is making fun – a movie unafraid to offer up laughs both smart and silly. In an entertainment world packed with options, you might not feel like taking a chance. But sometimes, well … you might want to have a little faith.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 11 October 2020 10:26

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