Celebrity preacher Joel Osteen got a $4 million PPP loan for his megachurch, despite being personally worth an estimated $50 million. Televangelist Jesse Duplantis asked his followers to buy him a $54 million jet. Kenneth Copeland has an entire fleet of jets because he doesn't want to be "in a long tube with a bunch of demons." These men and others preach the “prosperity gospel,” a rather perverse distortion of Christianity claiming that if you give your money to God, he will give you even more money in return. In reality, that money just enriches people like Osteen, Duplantis, and Copeland. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. takes satiric aim at individuals like them, hitting the bullseye more often than not.
Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) used to have thousands of people in his congregation. Then scandal hit, by his own hand, of course. Now the church has temporarily closed, causing those precious donations to dry up. He wants to stage a comeback, ostensibly for the Lord, but really to preserve his extravagant lifestyle. Those fancy suits aren't cheap, after all. Wife Trinitie (Regina King) dutifully does her part, Tammy Faye-style, despite seeing through his actions. The couple quickly faces a series of complications, from the lingering resentment of their former parishioners to Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance and Nicole Behari), another pastor and his wife who are about to open their own church locally.
The “gimmick” of the story is that Lee-Curtis and Trinitie have allowed a camera crew to document their comeback attempt, so parts of Honk for Jesus are traditional movie and others are The Office-style mockumentary. Writer/director Adamma Ebo doesn't always weave back and forth between them smoothly, although there are several very funny discrepancies between what the characters say/do in front of the cameras and what they say/do when those cameras are off. In that regard, the film effectively captures a fundamental truth about prosperity gospel preachers, namely that it's all a performance, designed to make people believe whatever is necessary to willingly empty their wallets.
Many of the film's bits are hilarious, such as a running gag about Christian mimes. A sequence inside Lee-Curtis's closet, which is filled with flamboyant suits of every color known to mankind, is clever, too. (It looks like an explosion in a Crayola factory.) A few others fizzle or don't quite have the sting they're aiming for. The rivalry with the Sumpters, for instance, is a terrific plot element that could have been played nastier. We know Lee-Curtis resents their efforts to encroach on what he sees as his territory. Why not have him actively sabotage them, or spread a vile rumor, or do something more than just fume at their existence? There's roughly a 70/30 split between jokes that pay off and those that don't entirely land. Still, that's a pretty good ratio.
The key to Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.'s success is its stars. Sterling K. Brown is phenomenal, perfectly capturing both the larger-than-life personality of megachurch preachers and the dark undercurrents people like that hide under a cloak of piety. He's electrifying. So is Regina Hall. Her part is more internal, as Trinitie's skepticism toward her husband's behavior grows slowly over the course of the story. The actress makes that palpable, allowing us to initially see the character as an enabler, then letting us watch as she finds her inner strength. Here's more proof that Hall is one of the best, yet most underrated actors around.
Brown and Hall are reason enough to see the movie. Any time two superb actors team up, it's worth paying attention to. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. also benefits from timeliness. Mocking evangelists may seem like a concept out of the 1980s – the heyday of preachers behaving badly. But we're in a time when Christianity is being exploited for politics, as well as for money. The film is a smart, witty reminder that people who distort Christianity for their own personal agendas are the ones who understand it the least.
out of four
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is rated R for language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.