Nothing howls out for a good, steel-tipped satiric whipping like modern American evangelism—the public discourse is so poisoned with cant about sin, “religious correctness,” warmongers praying for corpse-heaped victory, and faith-for-faith’s-sake proselytizing that Mark Twain could’ve worn a million pencils down to stubs and still not exhaust his say. But Twain didn’t write screenplays. How can mass entertainment, with so much demographic pandering on its agenda, lampoon Yankee self-holiness—that viscous stew of naïveté, insecure leader-lust, psychotic self-righteousness, and medieval imbecility?
Brian Dannelly’s Saved! is a halfhearted case in point. A teen comedy spewing from within a Jesus-freak sensibility, the movie makes the fatal error of trying to mollify its targets and ameliorate its own scorched earth. Set almost entirely in a Christian high school where assemblies begin with the vanilla-hip pastor (Martin Donovan) rousing the crowd with shouts of “Jesus is in the house!” Dannelly’s farce holds to a reflexive social stratum ruled by mean girls (namely, Jesus-loving baby doll Mandy Moore). An ambivalent clique member, the ponderously named Mary (Jena Malone), is informed by her boyfriend (Chad Faust) that he’s gay—a tragic condition warranting prayer meetings and exile to rehab centers. Mary’s response is to receive a pool-bottom vision of Christ, and then sacrifice her hymen for the lug, in hopes of correcting his errant ways. (“Thank you, Jesus!” she sighs, post-balling.) Of course, the still-chaste Mary gets knocked up, precipitating a piety meltdown all around and forcing everyone (including her love-starved mom, played by Mary-Louise Parker) to re-examine their notions of Christian generosity.
Dannelly and co-writer Michael Urban muster a few deft strokes (as when the girls practice their handguns at the “Emmanuel Shooting Range: An Eye for an Eye”), and the outrageous inclusion of a boozy, butt-smoking, Jewish renegade student (Eva Amurri) as the scenario’s heroic secularist is a treat. (If she’d controlled the film’s p.o.v., it’d have teeth.) But an overwhelming portion of Saved! is wall-to-wall Jesus-Jesus-Jesus talk, closer to dead air than social spoof. At times, the screenplay (including Mary’s voluminous narration) has the monotonous cadence of a recruitment sermon. You decide whether Dannelly is merely tone-deaf or is skewering Christian fervor only and exactly up to the point where Christians might be offended.
The passionate performances further muddy the waters: Moore is a terrifying, lip-gloss gorgon, queasily convincing in her power-mad sanctity and the swoony way she executes the born-again, one-hand-in-the-air prayer stance that so resembles a Nazi salute. But Saved! hands us Moore warbling “God Only Knows” more than once, in character and on the soundtrack, while the narrative fastidiously avoids interfacing with a larger social context (outside of one believer ending a prayer with “And keep our president safe”) or the possibility of abortion. Song interludes run from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the Replacements to real Christian rock; the target keeps moving, and sometimes disappears altogether.
And Jesus fucking Christ almighty, enough with the Coke product placements, which serve to remind us how typically commercial the whole megillah is. The rosy denouement is just a bit farther off-planet than your normal teen comedy, but preaches as high-handedly as an episode of the Lutheran-produced kids’ show Davey and Goliath. As any kind of statement, Dannelly’s film is cowardly and confused—no one should be surprised if Christian coalitions co-opt it for their own purposes.