'Honk for Jesus' review: An entertaining sage about scandal and redemption Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall play a Southern Baptist pastor and his wife trying to redeem their legacy in the wake of a public scandal in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.

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'Honk for Jesus' is an uneven but entertaining saga about scandal and redemption

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new satirical comedy "Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.", Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall play a Southern Baptist pastor and his wife trying to redeem their legacy in the wake of a public scandal. The movie premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is now playing in theaters. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: When I was a kid growing up in Orange County, I often found myself riding past the headquarters of the famous Trinity Broadcasting Network, an enormous, circular building that resembled the bottom tier of a wedding cake. It was a spectacularly tacky site, an example of the excesses of the prosperity gospel, the belief that extravagant wealth is a sign of God's favor. Having been raised in a modest Baptist church, I'd been taught early on to sneer at this notion and all the televangelists and other religious hucksters who upheld it. In recent years, the movies have also taken on the prosperity gospel, sometimes with a sneer and sometimes with a measure of sympathy. Jessica Chastain recently won an Oscar for her barbed yet heartfelt portrayal of Tammy Faye Bakker in "The Eyes Of Tammy Faye." And now, in the uneven but entertaining comedy "Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.", Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall give wonderfully complex performances as a disgraced Christian power couple trying to salvage what remains of their spiritual empire. Brown plays Lee-Curtis Childs, the pastor of a Black megachurch in Atlanta that at its peak boasted 25,000 congregants. Hall plays his steadfast wife, Trinitie Childs, who's chosen to stand by him through a humiliating scandal that drove away their flock and forced their church to close. Now, after some time away from the spotlight, the two are ready to resurrect their ministry. Lee-Curtis hires a documentary filmmaker to follow him and Trinitie as they prepare to reopen their church on Easter Sunday. He hopes that the resulting film will paint them in a forgiving light. But Trinitie has her doubts, which she voices over breakfast in their obscenely huge mansion.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL.")

STERLING K BROWN: (As Lee-Curtis Childs) It's about the cameras. Are you nervous? Don't be.

REGINA HALL: (As Trinitie Childs) I'm just making sure that this doesn't end up poorly for us.

BROWN: (As Lee-Curtis Childs) Anita Bonet is a renowned filmmaker.

HALL: (As Trinitie Childs) I've never heard of her.

BROWN: (As Lee-Curtis Childs) Come on, now. She won awards, be all up in them film festivals.

HALL: (As Trinitie Childs) OK, well...

BROWN: (As Lee-Curtis Childs) This is going to chronicle the ultimate comeback. This Easter is our revival, our renaissance. We winners, baby. You married a winner, and that's all I intend to do. Hey; I'm Rocky up in this fight (laughter).

HALL: (As Trinitie Childs) Rocky didn't win.

BROWN: (As Lee-Curtis Childs) How's that now?

HALL: (As Trinitie Childs) No, he went the distance, you know, the whole 15 rounds against Apollo Creed. But he didn't - he didn't actually win.

CHANG: "Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul." was written and directed by Adamma Ebo, who adapted it from her earlier short film of the same title. Her twin sister, Adanne Ebo, is one of the producers. We see a lot of that mock documentary footage as it's being shot. Lee-Curtis and Trinitie lead the camera crew on a tour of their church, which features a room with gilded thrones for the pastor and his wife to sit on and a private closet filled with Lee-Curtis' expensive, colorful suits.

It's both fun and a little depressing to watch these two constantly performing in front of the cameras but also revealing more of themselves than they realize. One minute, they're praising God to the heavens, and the next, they're cursing up a storm when something doesn't go their way. Trinitie learns that a rival Black church, led by a younger, hipper couple, played by the actors Conphidance and Nicole Beharie, is also planning to launch on Easter Sunday. The fate of their own reopening looks grim, especially when Trinitie keeps running into former friends who want nothing more to do with her, her husband or their church.

The two leads are terrific in these mockumentary scenes. As Lee-Curtis, Brown radiates swaggering charisma and energy, while Hall is all nervous chuckles and side glances as Trinitie tries to keep it together for the cameras. But the actors reveal even deeper emotional layers away from those cameras. One remarkably intimate moment takes place in the couple's bedroom, where we get a sense of the deep cracks in their marriage. And that's before we learn the more sordid details of Lee-Curtis' scandal.

As satire, "Honk For Jesus" is both blunt and broad. But then, as the movie shows us, so is the megachurch tradition it's skewering. And while Adamma Ebo certainly pokes fun at her protagonists, she never denies them their humanity. It's clear enough that a happy, redemptive ending isn't in the cards for Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. But even still, the characters find ways to keep surprising and even moving us. Hall, an outstanding dramatic actor, as well as a skilled comedian, gets a doozy of a monologue in which she finally peels away her glossy exterior and unleashes a genuinely anguished cry from the heart. Trinitie Childs may not be a character you can trust, but in these moments, Hall's performance is truly something to believe in.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul." On Monday's show, Sheryl Lee Ralph. She's nominated for an Emmy for her role in the ABC comedy series "Abbott Elementary" about teachers in an under-resourced elementary school. She plays one of the teachers. She starred in the original Broadway cast of "Dreamgirls." In the series "Moesha," Ralph played the stepmother. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN TENTET'S "OH BABY")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN TENTET'S "OH BABY")

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