'Saved!': Beyond Redemption
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page WE34
TO THE LIST of exclamatory adjectives that are being applied to the religious satire "Saved!" (including "wicked," "irreverent" and "subversive") allow me to add another: condescending.
Sure, it is rude, mean even. And that's okay. But when a comedy never misses an opportunity to let its audience know it thinks it's better than the people it's making fun of -- especially when the people it's making fun of are people who think they're better than everyone else -- such an approach is bound to come off as a little, well, hypocritical. Put another way, if you're mocking holier-than-thou-ness, you can't very well strike a hipper-than-thou tone.
That's the problem in a nutshell. "Saved!," which shows us the patronizing, ugly behavior that erupts in a Christian high school when a student (Jena Malone) gets pregnant out of wedlock, ends up patronizing and ugly itself. Ultimately, it's as preachy as its finger-wagging victims.
Set in the milieu of American Eagle Christian High School, the story revolves around the appropriately named Mary (Malone), a virgin who finds herself suddenly with child after a single instance of sexual intercourse with her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), a dream date in every way except for the fact that he's gay. You see, Mary, taking the hallucinatory advice of a Jesus-look-alike pool boy she "sees" after bumping her noggin while swimming, has taken it upon herself to cure Dean of his homosexuality by sleeping with him, trusting that the Lord will restore her spiritual virginity. When word of Mary's condition, however, gets out among the school's prayerful elite, led by queen bee Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), things get nasty, forcing our heroine to seek solace in a clique of "ungodly" outsiders (Eva Amurri as the school's lone Jew, Macaulay Culkin as Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother and Patrick Fugit as the principal's hunky skate-punk son). The film's crypto-Nazi bad guys, you see, are not only anti-Semitic and anti-cripple, but anti-fun.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that right-wing moralists, who preach "hate the sin, love the sinner" out of one side of their mouths, while spewing invective out of the other, deserve any sympathy. But I do think they deserve better than this film, which paints a derisive portrait of believers as folks who are not just naive but vicious idiots who vacillate between nastiness and hopeless nerddom. Heather Matarazzo as Hilary Faye's treacherous acolyte Tia, who has a vision of the Messiah in a goldfish bowl and who will do anything to score salvation points, and Mary-Louise Parker as Mary's clueless mother, Lillian, who actually likes Lifetime television -- snicker, snicker -- are cases in point.
This isn't just broad humor either. It's two-dimensional stereotyping of the worst kind. Like the plywood Jesus billboard erected by Hilary Faye outside the school, which loses its head in a climactic, prom-night automobile accident, it's pretty flimsy stuff, too.
Lord knows I wanted to like "Saved!" In addition to a talented, if wasted cast (rounded out by Martin Donovan as the school's hip-hop slang-slinging principal, Pastor Skip), it has chosen a target that is ripe for ridicule, if not over-ripe. Yet despite all the hot air about tolerance, it goes flaccid in the final reel, in which the film's solitary Jew, a couple of gays who have escaped from the Christian de-homosexualization facility that Dean has been sent to, and Mary, a now proudly defiant single mom, are beatified at the expense of everyone else.
You don't have to be a member of the God Squad to wish that "Saved!" had saved just a little of the affection it lavishes on its "fallen" heroes for the so-called villains, none of whom it even respects enough to allow to be real.
SAVED! (PG-13, 92 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual humor and slapstick violence. At Loews Georgetown, Landmark's Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Jena Malone, left, is Mary, a pregnant teenager in the holier-than-thou film "Saved!," also starring Macaulay Culkin and Mandy Moore.