One early, ominous sign of trouble in "Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul." is that its main characters — a beleaguered pastor and his "first lady" — cannot agree on something as simple as how to pronounce "Amen."
It's an amusing detail in a not-great movie that features two standout lead performances. Gifted and versatile Regina Hall stars as the first lady. She's trying to keep it together despite an at-first-unspecified scandal that has drained their megachurch — Wander to Greater Paths Baptist — of nearly its entire congregation. Hall is droll and very touching as Trinitie, especially when she's confronted by a seemingly supportive former congregant in a mall. Their exchange, which is all about the nasty insults they just barely avoid dumping on each other, is Jane Austen-esque in its restraint and biting humor. But it also underscores that Trinitie may be the only true believer in the movie.
Sterling K. Brown, the onetime Guthrie Theater actor and star of "This Is Us," is terrific as Lee-Curtis, whose double name is a clue to his double life. Brown's character doesn't provide him as many opportunities to flex his acting muscles as Hall's (she's the star of the film and gets the top billing she deserves) but he walks a fine line — speaking platitudes while also using language unbecoming a longshoreman — and navigates the tonal shifts confidently.
About those tonal shifts, though. "Honk for Jesus" is often funny but it exists in a frustrating world of "almosts." It purports to be a mock documentary, one the couple unsuccessfully tries to control, but that format doesn't work because so many of the scenes exist outside the documentary footage. Sometimes, it also feels like a comedy that came out of improvisation, along the lines of Christopher Guest's "Waiting for Guffman," but not everyone in the supporting cast has the acting chops or spontaneity that the leads do. (In both cases, the explanation may be that "Honk" began its life as a short film before it was awkwardly expanded into a feature.)
Because it contains echoes of so many actual, church-related scandals — including anti-gay/NSFW pastor Dwayne Dawkins and even a recent rant by a clergyman who thought his congregation didn't give him fancy enough gifts — "Honk" seems to want us to interpret it as satire. Otherwise, why give Lee-Curtis a Prada-filled closet that's bigger than my house and a mansion that's like a fancier Versailles? But given how regularly those real-life scandals occur, religious hypocrisy is too broad and easy a target, so it never becomes clear what "Honk" thinks it's satirizing.
It's still worth seeing. Between this and last week's Netflix comedy "Me Time," both coming on the heels of Hall co-hosting this year's Oscars, it's clear that she is an outstanding actor who's one role away from becoming a star.
'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.'
** out of 4 stars
Rated: R for very strong language.
Where: In theaters.