Starring: Melissa Joan Hart, Jesse Metcalfe, Hayley Orrantia, Ray Wise, Trisha LaFache, David A.R. White, Ernie Hudson
Rated PG for Some Thematic Material
Two years ago, "God's Not Dead" was unleashed into theaters. Despite being a preachy, misogynist and hypocritical piece of crap that was so bad that even those in its target audience hated it, it made a killing at the box office (it made a handsome $60 million in profit). It was one of the few movies I gave a zero-star rating to. So when I learned they were coming out with a sequel, I dreaded it, realizing that the only pleasure I could possibly get from it was eviscerating it in a review.
So why the 1/4 instead of the 0/4 that I was preparing to give it (and in some ways, hoping to give it). A few reasons. One, the acting has improved. While Melissa Joan Hart, Jesse Metcalfe, and Ernie Hudson aren't name actors, they have starred in some legitimate productions and do solid jobs here, which considering the pabulum they are given, is worth congratulating them for. I neglected to mention "Twin Peaks" star Ray Wise because, as the snarling villain who "hates everything [Christians] stand for," he's awful.
Don't get me wrong. This is still a really bad movie, containing many of the same problems as the first one: endless preaching, commercialization and politicization of religion, obviously flawed arguments, caricatures instead of characters, and general hypocrisy and stupidity. It's just that upon seeing the end credits (which, again, cite examples of cases against Christians who are persecuted for their faith), I didn't feel like doing things to the filmmakers that would get me arrested.
After the death of her brother six months ago, Brooke (Orrantia) is having a hard time coping. Her teacher Grace Wesley (Hart) says that her eternal optimism comes from Jesus. When talking about non-violent protest in one of her lectures, Brooke asks if Jesus was an example. Grace answers yes, and cites a Bible passage to prove her point. However, word gets around and she is suspended. Refusing to apologize for a crime she did not commit, she retains a young lawyer named Tom Endler (Metcalfe) to represent her. The case becomes infamous with inflamed passions on both sides.
The film's premise is on solid ground, but like in the first film, is botched in the telling. Although public schools, rightly or wrongly, are hyper-sensitive to religion in schools, there's no reasonable person for what Grace said. Considering the context, her words were appropriate. And in the event that a school did raise a fuss, there's no question that they would lose. Stacking the deck so fully in Grace's favor kills a lot of the dramatic tension and makes the same mistake that the first film did: every non-believer not only doesn't believe in God, but hates anyone who does.
The acting is better, mainly because the weakest performers are given limited screen time. An example would be the characters of Pastor Dave (White) and his buddy, Reverend Jude (Benjamin A. Oyango). They were meant to be hip comic relief, but they were really just dumb (it's hard to make any characters interesting when all they do is spend time at a broken down car trading bible verses like movie trivia and repeating a cheesy catchphrase). They actually have a purpose other than to eat screen time.
The court proceedings generate some level of interest, mainly because the actors have more talent than the stiff nobody Shane Harper and the ever-snarling villain Kevin Sorbo from the first one. One of the witnesses is seems straight out of an infomercial for Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club" but another who used forensic science to prove the existence of Jesus is compelling.
In the end, however, the film is sunk not by its construction, plot or acting, but its single-minded desire to preach. It's so one-sided and so obvious in its intentions that they overtake any desire to tell a compelling story or create discussion. It's sanctimonious victimhood irritates because it's so false. Screaming hate about gay marriage and abortion and then turning around and whining that there is a "War on Christianity" when they get criticized for it is a little hypocritical. In fact, there is a scene where the film defends Muslims in the same sentence as Christians, but neglects Judaism, which is in the same spiritual family. Such mistakes are indicative of the calculating, commercialization of religion that this "franchise" espouses.
If anything, it's movies like "God's Not Dead" and its sequel that are the Christian Right's own worst enemy. Blatantly attacking anyone who disagrees with them isn't going to endear them to those they seek to inspire. Only annoy them.