Sweet dolts and best friends Luke (Luke Barnett) and Tanner (Tanner Tomason) live in Los Angeles, where everything is bullshit, from Hollywood action heroes hawking sugary breakfast cereals and baristas waxing lyrical over artisan coffee to self-help entrepreneurs spouting motivational nonsense and the “weight-loss tea” pyramid scheme Luke is miserably failing to scramble up. Perhaps the most honest thing either of them has is Luke’s despair over his lack of success, and Tanner’s happy embrace of his humble life: he works as a bartender and is content merely to “make money to drink and hang out with [his] friends.” They’re like a 30something Bill and Ted, but with slightly more self-awareness, and quite a bit less luck greasing their way through life.
And then, in a fit of inspiration, Luke hits on what can be their own scam: They’ll make a “Christian” movie, because “the genre is a gold mine.” Luke and Tanner are huge movie fans, but neither one knows the first thing about filmmaking. No biggie. As the exec at a distributor of so-called faith-based movies snarks, these movies “don’t have to be bad. They just don’t have to be good.” (My experience with them as a critic is that I have yet to see one that is more a film than a sermon.) The guys are confident they can make a not-good movie for Jesus, and then sit back and watch the riches roll in. And they’re off…
I am here for the cynicism with which Faith Based launches itself; Margaret Cho (Bright) as that exec, for instance, is glorious with her contempt. But I was rather delightfully surprised to find that I am also here for the sincerity and the good cheer it ultimately ends with. The satire is gentle, and in a script — written by Barnett — full of zingers, even those are affable and often even underlain with kindness. The very funny movie-riffing insults Luke and Tanner regularly exchange are nothing so much as expressions of the deep devotion and long-term friendship the two men enjoy. And the critique of faith-based cinema attacks its commercial crassness and its dubious craft, but never the more personal impulses behind it. What starts off as, perhaps, a mild knocking of the earnestness of the members of the small church that Luke and Tanner hit up to fund their movie becomes a full-on embrace of their genuine, unforced niceness.
That’s not to say that religion is entirely off the cards for ridicule — “Christian rock” gets a bit of a skewering, too — but it’s punching up, not down. Through the relationships, old and new, that Luke and Tanner have with the members of the apparently nondenominational evangelical congregation, we see that this is most emphatically not a group of phony Christians who are racist, sexist, homophobic, or operating from any other place of hatred, as some who call themselves followers of Jesus clearly are. With the United States so fractured right now, and some of it along religious (or faux religious) lines, an oblique reminder that not all religion is toxic and not all those who follow a faith wield it as a weapon is very welcome indeed.
Really, Faith Based isn’t about Christian cinema at all… or at least not in any way that distinguishes it and its fans from any other genre and its fans. (The fact that the guys make a faith-based science-fiction flick — a terrible, terrible science-fiction flick — leads to a well-deserved kick at how plenty SF geeks don’t seem overly concerned with quality, either.) Even the swipes at the clichés of low-budget genre filmmaking are ones that Faith Based is willing to dole out itself, too: Luke is determined to get one of his childhood heroes, schlock-action star Butch Savage (David Koechner: CHiPs), to cameo in his and Tanner’s movie, because a B- or C-list star with retro appeal helps big up a little project… but Faith Based also has, right here, Jason “Seinfeld” Alexander (Wild Card), sending himself up but also lending the movie’s biggest name as Nicky Steele, the aforementioned self-help entrepreneur, smarming out ridiculous motivational aphorisms in snippets of his cheesy informercials. (Luke is a big fan of Steele, too.)
Nope, this charming comedy is about friendship, finding your own purpose in life, and — here’s me being cheesy — having enough faith in yourself to dare to try something audacious. That’s another fitting message for desperate times, and a tougher one to hear. But Faith Based makes it go down easy.