Jesus is back at the multiplex. Following the 50-foot wave left behind by Mel Gibson's dark and somber "The Passion of the Christ" comes "Saved!," a frothy teen comedy set at an evangelical high school. The film is stirring up Christian audiences and commentators, who seem torn.
Embrace the movie, even its barbs, for its message of tolerance? Or rebuke it as a blasphemous piece of anti-fundamentalist mockery, produced, incidentally, by a Jew and bankrolled by R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, an atheist? The message boards at HollywoodJesus.com sizzle.
The PG-13 movie includes a "perfect Christian boyfriend" who has a gay porn magazine stashed under his mattress and whose girlfriend knocks the head off a wooden Jesus after getting knocked up. So, there is some fizz in this bottle.
"We've been called the most evil film ever to come out of Hollywood, a sign that the Rapture is upon us," says director Brian Dannelly, enjoying an after-dinner drink and a smoke outside a spiffy L.A. eatery.
Jerry Falwell, saying he had not seen the film, predicted on CNN that the movie would "crash and burn" at the box office -- as he clearly hoped it would. Falwell told Dannelly that the movie sounded like a broadside from Hollywood liberals at born-again Christians, the kind of satire that would not be socially acceptable, Falwell says, if directed at Jews, blacks or Muslims.
Dannelly says that "Saved!" is actually doing quite well, thank you very much, for a small $5 million film; it opened last week on 20 screens and, based on generally positive reviews in the mainstream media and audience interest, is now heading into wider release in 500 theaters.
"So the Reverend Falwell is wrong -- again," Dannelly says. This evening he is dressed in a crisp pink shirt and a rumpled khaki suit. He's 40 years old, lives with his dog in a self-described "crummy apartment" and drives a Mazda compact, "which is basically a Ford Fiesta."
As he struggled to get his film made, Dannelly says, he painted houses and toiled in telemarketing. He grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Raised Catholic, he attended parochial school in the first grade but was expelled for "hitting a nun. But it wasn't as bad as it sounds," he says.
For two years he went to a Christian high school, Arlington Baptist, where he says he was personally "saved" by publicly accepting Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. But again he was bounced from school, this time for excessive demerits -- "though you could get a demerit for not bringing a red pen to math class."
To round it out, Dannelly also did Jewish summer camp, returning as a camp counselor to ride herd over his charges in "Bunk Hertzel." "I learned all the Hebrew songs," he remembers. He describes his current religion as "an ongoing journey."
As a first-time director, who also wrote the screenplay with Michael Urban, Dannelly confesses that he goes onto the Internet obsessively to monitor the buzz about his film. He also sneaks into screenings to listen to the audience.
"I think I made a balanced movie," he says. "It could have gone in a lot of different ways. I don't really see it as a satire. It's more subversive. But it's still a teen comedy -- the teens just happen to be fundamentalists."
The movie is set in Blandsville, USA, at the American Eagle Christian High School, senior year. It stars Mandy Moore as Hilary Faye, the Little Miss Popular who rules over a girl-clique and pop band known as the "Christian Jewels," and who punctuates her sentences with "praise Jesus" the way Valley Girls used to say "like totally." Hilary Faye is a zealot and a comedic stereotype. Interestingly, Moore was previously embraced by Christian audiences for her role in 2002's "A Walk to Remember," when she played a serious daughter of a town minister who helps steer a wayward boy toward good.
Her gal pal is Mary (played by Jena Malone), a much more nuanced role. She learns that her boyfriend, Dean, is gay and so she sleeps with him to save him -- after having a vision of the pool boy as Jesus Christ. Mary gets pregnant.
Supporting characters include an older Macaulay Culkin as a paraplegic cynic; Eva Amurri (Susan Sarandon's daughter) as the school's lone Jew and wiseacre who interrupts a pep rally by pretending to speak in tongues; and Martin Donovan as the flippy-dippy "Pastor Skip," who asks the students, "Are you ready to get your Jesus on?"
There has been plenty of negative reaction. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of Film and Broadcasting rated the movie "L" -- the rating given to films "whose problematic content many adults would find troubling." The Catholic film office said "Saved!" included "religious stereotypes, an implied teen sexual encounter, homosexual references, recurring rough and crude language, profanity and several blasphemous jokes."
Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian Film & Television Commission, called it "a sad, bigoted, anti-Christian movie that mocks the Christian faith."
Dannelly says he expected a strong reaction. Just before filming began, the popular Christian rock group the Elms, who were going to perform in the movie, backed out.
Dannelly defends his work as "ultimately a very loving film, not against Christianity, but against extremism, which is very different." He says what is most gratifying to him are the religious viewers "who get it." And there have been many expressions of support.
A typical positive posting on ChristianAnswers.net came from Kelly, age 19, who wrote: "I thought Saved! was fantastic. Yes, it is a satirical look at a group of popular teenagers at a Christian high school struggling with some major choices, and that will freak some people out. And most of the characters call into question their faith, but by the end EVERY character is strengthened by their experiences and renews their commitment to Christ."
Todd Hertz, a reviewer for Christianity Today's Web site, writes, "The movie is ultimately pro-faith and does make some perceptive criticisms of evangelicals." Hertz points out the movie seeks to explore and satirize "the sometimes hateful and hypocritical ways some Christians treat homosexuals and anyone with apparent sin. In addition, Saved! pokes fun at the Christian bubble evangelicals can live in -- presenting their own awards like 'Best Christian Interior Decorator.' These criticisms are valid and could make some of us think about our behaviors -- and that 'bubble.' "
Dannelly says that was his point. He says he assumes he may spend the rest of the summer sitting on panels discussing the controversy over his movie. "And that's okay. I'm really happy to have it out there in the world. The fact that people are seeing it, that's a nice thing."