The movie Honk for Jesus: Save Your Soul belongs to Regina Hall. By the end, she has seized it with both hands thanks to a performance that, especially in the film’s second half, is explosive, multi-layered and, unfortunately, much more purposeful than the film itself.
Written and directed by first-timer Adamma Ebo, Honk for Jesus bills itself as a satire but is at its best, like Hall, in more dramatic scenes. Structured for the most part like a mockumentary, its subjects are preacher Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife Trinitie Childs (Hall), who preside over Wander to Greater Paths, a mega-Southern Baptist church that used to regularly pack hundreds of believers into its pews until a sex scandal involving Lee-Curtis and several young male congregants forced them to shut things down. The “documentary,” overseen by a director who never appears on-camera, is supposed to track Lee-Curtis’s triumphant return to the pulpit, but there’s not nearly as much triumph to capture as Lee-Curtis seems to believe.
Honk for Jesus, which opens in theaters and also is streaming on Peacock today, begins in the mode of a Christopher Guest movie, with the self-absorbed couple showing the camera all the material possessions that a life serving God has helped them attain, including a closet full of flashy Prada suits and a house practically as big as Versailles. The two come across as clueless, deluded hypocrites who talk about Christian values without truly demonstrating them, types we’ve seen before on film and television (not to mention real life). HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, for example, covers similar territory with more bite and uproarious humor than this mostly tepid attempt at a send-up can summon.
There are several subjects embedded in this movie that are worthy of parody and deeper scrutiny, including the ostentatious nature of mega-churches, Christian attitudes toward homosexuality, and the gaze that documentarians bring to stories about religion as well as the Black community. But Ebo doesn’t fully dig into any of them. Too often, the movie feels scattered, like a term paper that keeps going despite the lack of a thesis statement. Even the mockumentary conceit gets shattered a couple of times via moments, including a sex scene, that clearly were not filmed by the in-movie crew. Tonally, it’s all over the place.
But you can’t deny Hall, an actress who consistently elevates the material she’s given. (Brown, an actor with charisma for miles, is solid, too, but his arc doesn’t lead to the kind of emotional reckoning that Hall’s does.)
While shopping for a hat to wear to Easter services, Trinitie notes that the saying at their church has always been “come as you are,” but “we also have another saying: God don’t like ugly.” It’s one of the funnier lines in the movie and she tosses it off with just the right splash of the blasé. But she really goes to the next level in the final act, when Trinitie begins to wrestle more actively with the possibility that their church, and her marriage to Lee-Curtis, might not be salvageable. She has a breakdown in the third act while her face is slathered in white mime make-up — it’s a long and spoilery story — that is surprisingly raw and affecting. Trinitie could have existed as mere caricature but in that moment and some other key scenes, Hall transforms her into an actual human being expelling years worth of resentment and despair for the first time.
It’s a shame that the rest of Honk for Jesus doesn’t have the same power, from a comedic or storytelling point of view. Ebo does have a decent eye; she uses wide shots effectively, notably in a scene where Trinitie can be seen entering a gym in the background just as Lee-Curtis has finished hitting on one of the male members of the documentary crew in the foreground. But Honk for Jesus gets as lost in its search for a message as Lee-Curtis and Trinitie do in their quest for redemption. It’s a film whose prayers never lead to an answer.
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