‘Honk For Jesus’: Leaders of disgraced church attempt a comeback in a comedy light on laughs
The great Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall star in overlong mockumentary that can’t decide how funny it wants to be.
One of the common threads running through the best mockumentaries, from Rob Reiner’s 1984 classic “This Is Spinal Tap” through the catalog of affectionately prodding Christopher Guest films such as “Best in Show” (2000), “A Mighty Wind” (2003) and “Mascots” (2016), and even the inspired lunacy of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” (2006) and “Bruno” (2009), is these faux-docs remain committed to the format throughout. Every scene we see is ostensibly shot by a documentary filmmaker chronicling the misadventures of its subjects.
Unfortunately, in the intermittently clever and poignant but far too long and eventually heavy-handed satire “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,” first-time feature filmmaker Adamma Ebo (adapting her 2018 short film of the same name) hedges her bets, undercutting the effectiveness of the format. For most of the story, we’re firmly ensconced in Christopher Guest territory, with the largely unseen documentary crew following around the subjects, who sit for interviews and from time to time address the director directly to ask for judicious editing or a pause in filming. But when the clearly talented writer-director-producer Ebo breaks from the format, e.g., in a bedroom scene involving the two leads that is framed like a traditional fictional drama and couldn’t possibly be shot by the documentary team, it’s jarring and it detracts from the overall effect.
Filmed on what appears to be an extremely limited budget given the scarcity of scenes involving more than a handful of people, “Honk for Jesus” stars the exceptional tandem of Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as Lee-Curtis and Trinitie Childs, the pastor and first lady of the once-mighty Wander to Greater Paths Baptist megachurch in Georgia. For years, the church had a 25,000-strong congregation and filled the Childs’ personal coffers to the tune of untold millions — but a horrific scandal resulted in the church closing and the flock fleeing elsewhere. Now Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are planning to re-open Wander to Greater Paths on Easter Sunday, and they’ve invited an acclaimed documentary filmmaker to chronicle the buildup to what they hope will be a glorious and triumphant day.
Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Adamma Ebo. Rated R (for language and some sexual content). Running time: 98 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.
Lee-Curtis alternates between wearing splashy, color-coordinated Prada ensembles and finding excuses to doff his shirt (Brown is as ripped as a Marvel superhero), while Trinitie preps for the big day by shopping for $2,000+ hats and maintaining a disconcertingly cheerful façade, even though it’s obvious she hasn’t forgiven Lee-Curtis for his sins and has serious doubts about this whole comeback effort. There’s a lot of Glory-to-God speechifying and talk of being saved by both of them, but we don’t believe a word of it. Lee-Curtis and Trinitie want to be successful and loved again, and the soul-saving is just a means to that end. (Money doesn’t seem to be an issue. They’re still living in an obscenely enormous mansion and spending like newly minted lottery winners.)
“Honk for Jesus” has a handful of halfhearted subplots, as when we’re introduced to the five misguided and rather pitiable souls who have remained committed to the Childses even through the scandal, and when we’re introduced to a young married couple (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance) who are pastors of a nearby rival church and come across as a starter-kit version of Lee-Curtis and Trinitie: attractive, ambitious and saying all the right things about bringing people closer to the Lord when we can see they’re in the game primarily for self-aggrandizement.
Mostly, though, we follow Lee-Curtis and Trinitie’s campaign to promote the reopening of the church, which consists of participating in the documentary (which of course won’t come out until later and thus won’t do any good) and standing on the side of the road, with Lee-Curtis preaching through a tiny megaphone and Trinitie waving a sign inviting passing drivers to, well, honk for Jesus. How this is supposed to drum up interest in their big comeback is never addressed, as the story (which was never very funny) becomes ever more serious and ultimately quite sad. (There’s a big swing late in the story involving a character in whiteface, but it works neither as a shock to our senses or a piece of social commentary. The scene just dies a slow death.)
Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall are magnificent actors, and there are times when their work together offers glimpses of what could have been a powerful, straightforward drama about a couple who might have started off as true believers who wanted to do good in the world but fell far from God’s graces and are struggling to find their way back. This is not that movie. Played as a satire, it offers far too few genuine laughs, and we’re left somewhere between mockumentary and depressing character study.