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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Righteous irritation

Small-release satire 'Saved!' sparks passions.

June 01, 2004|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Film critics have joked for years that if Martin Scorsese had made it through boyhood without being whacked over and over by a nun with a ruler he might never have made "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver." So it comes as no surprise that "Saved!," an irreverent comedy set in a Christian high school, is the product of a filmmaker who went to a school where listening to popular music was so verboten that for the senior prom, the school had a puppet show instead of a dance.

"We'd sit in these assemblies where we'd hear about a girl who'd squeezed a pimple and died and she went to hell because she hadn't been saved," explains "Saved!" director Brian Dannelly, who co-wrote the film -- which opened Friday -- with Michael Urban when the two were students at the American Film Institute. "We not only couldn't listen to music, we even had record burnings. I remember once we had to count the number of orgasms in Donna Summer's 'Love to Love You Baby.' "

Urban had a similar experience; at his Christian camp, the kids deconstructed Kiss videos. So when they set about writing a film that would examine the evangelical movement through the prism of a teen comedy, they should have known they'd be walking into a cultural battle zone.

What they delivered is about as far from "The Passion of the Christ" as Jessica Simpson is from knowing what's in Chicken of the Sea tuna. The tone is more John Waters than John Hughes. When the boyfriend of the film's heroine, Mary, played by Jena Malone, tells her that he thinks he's gay, Jesus appears before her, urging she do everything possible to help him. The teens proceed to have sex, and she gets pregnant. What happens next prompts a crisis of faith and an avalanche of comic complications.

"We wanted to use the traditional iconography of a high school movie but introduce some subversive elements that would be, well, uncomfortable just by themselves," Dannelly explains.

The director knew it was a hoary high-school movie cliche to see the girls eagerly checking out the hot new guy in class. "So the first image I had for 'Saved!,' " Dannelly says, "was a kid with a gold lame loincloth on a cross, and this girl is looking up at him and her eyes travel down from his face to.... "

Produced by Michael Stipe and Sandy Stern, the film is full of satirical mischief, but you'd have to be awfully thin-skinned to call it harsh or mean-spirited. Judging from e-mail comments about the film from movie websites, many younger Christians have embraced "Saved!," viewing it as no more subversive than "Mean Girls." As Variety's critic noted, many of the film's teens have "a humanity and tenderness beneath their characters' trashy facades."

Basing the movie on personal experiences didn't protect the filmmakers from the wrath of conservative religious leaders, who see its sendups of flawed but generally well-meaning Christians as an indictment of religion on a grand scale. The fact that the movie's marketers are reaching into the Christian youth community that helped make Mel Gibson's movie such a runaway hit --"Got Passion? Get Saved," reads one advertising tag line -- is even more infuriating.

Critical voices

William DONAHUE, Catholic League president, didn't just criticize the movie; he sounded almost as snarky as a rival studio executive, baldly predicting it would bomb at the box office. (In fact, it did a very respectable $22,000 per screen over the holiday weekend, in limited release in just 20 theaters.)

Cal Thomas, whose column is syndicated in 550 newspapers, said the film appears to mock Jesus Christ, "or at least satirize his followers, portraying them as hypocrites and superficial dunderheads, which is how most of Hollywood sees Christians." Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian Film and Television Commission, condemned the film as a "hateful, politically correct movie. It is being heavily marketed to the community it mocks to lead Christian youth astray."

Rev. Jerry Falwell said he was saddened to see Christians portrayed as "virtual nitwits," adding that "modern-day America and Hollywood frequently takes on a singular and hostile temperament in regard to Christians. It is the equivalent of reckless racial profiling that endangers people solely because of their skin color."

Putting aside my surprise at seeing Falwell suddenly emerge as a critic of racial profiling, what struck me about these complaints was the fact that they come from some of the very people who were most upset when New York Times columnist Frank Rich and various Jewish leaders raised the specter of "The Passion of the Christ" as a potential worldwide threat to Jews before actually seeing the film. Few of the outraged commentators bothered to see "Saved!" before damning it as anti-Christian. At least "The Passion's" critics tried to see the movie but were kept away by Gibson's handlers.

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