It took four or five tries to get Do You Believe? to start at the showing I attended. (It was the first show, which is the most likely time for this sort of thing to happen in the world of digital projection.) It made me wonder if maybe God didn’t want me to see this — or that, as a skeptic, I was a source of unfriendly vibrations that were hoodoo-ing the projection. Mystical musings aside, the movie finally started and — following trailers for the newest Nicholas Sparks adaptation and Jurassic World — this fairly obvious attempt to cash in on the unexpected box office bonanza of last year’s God’s Not Dead began. We have the same writers — Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon — and the same production company — Pure Flix — and the same wholly insular approach. And, yes, the results — despite an increased budget buying the services of more impressive fading stars than Kevin Sorbo — are very much the same.
In its — ultimately marginal — favor, Do You Believe? is less hysterical about its agenda than God’s Not Dead, and it seeks to address one of the central problems with its predecessor by offering examples of practical Christianity. God’s Not Dead was all about faith to an alarming degree. People might destroy their lives and be homeless or endanger others because of their faith — and there was no one willing to lend a hand to help them — but, hey, they had faith. End of subject. Do You Believe? is more concerned with putting that faith into action. That’s admirable, but it still ends up trading in the same worldview that’s as hermetically sealed as a tin of Prince Albert — and tossing the standard “us vs. them” red meat (unions, abortion, the American Humanist Association) to the easily riled. It’s the same old false shuffle dealt from the same old stacked deck.
The idea here is bargain basement Robert Altman or P.T. Anderson by way of Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005) — but the racism in Crash gives way to Christianity here. We have a dozen characters whose lives “will be impacted in ways that only God could orchestrate” — well, God or a couple of cliché-loving screenwriters. All this unfolds in the city of Chicago — home to “ten million souls,” narrator Pastor Matt (Ted McGinley) assures us, raising the question of why Messrs. Konzelman and Solomon couldn’t be bothered to look up the population. (A friend suggested that maybe seven-and-a-half million of these souls are disembodied.) An encounter with a street preacher (Delroy Lindo) carting around a full-size cross (with wheels, which strikes me as cheating) shakes Pastor Matt’s complacency on the topic of faith without action. So he decides to change his ways and fire up his congregation (via a bag of little wooden crosses) to put their faith into action. That’s pretty much it — except for the parade of barely developed characters whose lives are affected by this sermon.
These cardboard characters include a good-hearted convict (Brian Bosworth) on compassionate release because he’s dying of what looks like consumption (but is apparently some kind of leukemia), a heartless doctor (Sean Astin) who’s cheesed over God getting credit for his skills, his equally awful avaricious lawyer girlfriend (Andrea Logan White), a pregnant runaway (Madison Pettis) and a pious EMT (Liam Matthews) on trial (no prizes for guessing who the prosecuting attorney is) for sharing his beliefs with a dying man. Wedged into this overcrowded mess are a homeless mother and daughter (Mira Sorvino and Mackenzie Moss), an aging couple (Lee Majors and Cybill Shepherd) grieving over a dead daughter, a repentant gang-banger (Shwayze) on the run and, believe it or not, a suicidal young woman (Alexa PenaVega) who meets cute with a suicidal PTSD soldier (Joseph Julian Sora) when they’re both debating jumping off the same bridge.
It all climaxes in a massive pileup of car crashes involving most of the cast that gets so progressively preposterous that it’s hard not to burst out laughing. Lives will be lost, lives will saved, and souls are up for grabs. At the very least, if you’re not a true believer, you’ll be taught a lesson — unless you’re black, in which case things look pretty grim in general. OK, the acting is better — what there is of it — than in God’s Not Dead, but the production values are no better than your average Tyler Perry movie. It also looks like lightning will not be striking twice, since the box office was considerately less than half of God’s Not Dead. Look, it’s perfectly possible to make a deeply profound movie on the topic of faith — check out last year’s Calvary — but this isn’t it. This is smug, self-satisfied mediocrity run rampant. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, an accident sequence and some violence.