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Two masterful performances anchor Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.—an occasionally electrifying but somewhat misguided satire. The film features Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) as the disgraced preacher and “first lady” of a once-thriving megachurch who, after allegations of sexual misconduct are laid against Lee-Curtis, are now plotting their return to glory. The film draws from the scandal involving the late Bishop Eddie Long, who opposed homosexuality and was accused of sexual coercion by multiple young men.
Brown and Hall have earned reputations as two of the most talented, versatile actors of their generation, but rarely have they found roles like these. The film peels back the layers of their characters, and the actors keep up, supplying an endless reserve of emotional complexity.
Honk is framed as a documentary funded by Lee-Curtis and Trinitie to chronicle their resurrection and promote their new church. The husband and wife speak directly to the camera, affirming their faith and unabashedly flaunting the riches they’ve accrued while supposedly serving their Creator. Much of the film was improvised, and, for better or worse, it feels it: Brown and Hall forge a palpable chemistry as two people who have bought each other’s bullshit for so long they have no sense of how they come off to others, but their riffing often goes on too long with little dramatic or emotional payoff. Still, the performances resonate: Brown, who rarely does comedy, is a revelation, nailing the performative aspects of Lee-Curtis’ work, while hinting at underlying anxiety through a forced smile or a beat that is held just a little too long.
Brown is so charismatic that shifting the focus to Hall, who the film is actually more interested in, is an awkward, gears-grinding effort. Trinitie publicly supports her husband through scandal and controversy, but writer-director Adamma Ebo methodically demonstrates the myriad ways Trinitie suffers in her servitude as the faithful wife. It’s there in the fake laugh, the way she says “Bless your heart,” when she really means exactly the opposite (her eyes are filled with four-letter words), and perhaps most notably in the way her breath catches when she is reminded of her husband’s infidelity.
It’s a lot to juggle, and the film takes time to find its footing. Early scenes indicate a lesser Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, with the actors improvising cringe-worthy moments while staying in character. The scenes in which the facade drops—and Ebo shows us how they behave when the cameras are off—are wildly effective in revealing character, but the actors are so good at revealing contradiction that jumping back and forth becomes unnecessary. Brown and Hall reveal their characters’ hypocrisies too early on through performance, and there’s nowhere for the film to go.
As good as Brown and Hall are, they might be miscast. Ebo should have gone with purely comic actors so that the reveal of high drama comes as a surprise. Instead, it feels inevitable, and the parade of comic moments that feel drummed up in a writer’s room grow tiresome. “Praise-miming,” a new art form that combines worship and whiteface, makes an ill-begotten appearance, as does the phrase, “Jesus Christ was all about the shock factor!” which would kill on an improv stage, but lands with a thud here. Honk is the rare case in which the actors are too rich for the film, which makes the film too poor for us.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. opens in area theaters Sept. 2.