What happens when four good ol’ boys from Austin discover that their Animal House lifestyle is on the verge of economic collapse? If they’re smart, they’ll bring out their artificially worn-in Bibles, join a church and start stealing from the donation plate. At least that’s what they do in Believe Me.
Believe Me is the first narrative feature by Will Bakke and Michael B. Allen. The filmmaking duo’s previous two projects have been documentaries (not so coincidentally, given the premise detailed above, titled One Nation Under God and Beware of Christians). Their latest effort is not unenjoyable. Certain aspects really shine—the casting, in particular. Bakke’s actors get away with murder, due mostly to their natural charm.
This is both a blessing and a curse for the movie. Bakke and Allen seem to be under the impression that audiences will sympathize with their characters just because they have nice smiles and look like they wandered out of a J. Crew catalog.
The film opens on a shot of frat king Sam (Alex Russell), asleep in his bed. A pledge hovers next to him, beeping like an alarm clock. Sam awakens and slaps the pledge’s face. No biggie. Sometimes you just gotta hit the snooze button.
In the next scene, Sam and his frat brothers lord over a group of pledges. The four men make a whole morning out of abusing the underclassmen and lecturing them on the reasons to lie during an upcoming hazing investigation. This is supposed to be funny.
Anyway, in order to pay off some outstanding debts, the guys scheme to dupe folks of faith, holding a fundraiser to benefit a fake charity organization. A local mega-church called Cross Country takes note and offers them $15,000 to tour the country preaching the word of God. “Christians want the emotional high of giving. We’re just going to supply that demand, in exchange for a small fee,” Sam explains to his fellow con artists, eyeing the lucrative opportunity.
Ken (Christopher McDonald) is the congregation’s sweetly gullible minister, though he appears more interested in national rankings than he is in helping people. Ditto for Gabriel (Zachary Knighton, of TV’s Happy Endings), the church’s resident star, who’s more concerned with fame and fortune than spirituality.
From the very first shot, Bakke presents his main characters—who begin calling themselves “The God Squad”—as self-centered jerks. The only thing he gives us to counter this depiction is … their good looks? Their bro-y charisma? Their masturbatory self-admiration? If they all like each other, the audience will like them too, right? I give up.
This problem is central to the failure of the film. In the long tradition of collegiate comedies, Sam is meant to be an enfant terrible. Unfortunately, he is neither as chic as Vince Vaughn in Swingers nor as warm as Ryan Reynolds in Van Wilder. Though not Alex Russell’s fault, his character just comes across as a dick.
And there you have it—four veritable narcissists who abuse their pledges and gleefully commit fraud against an organization whose leaders are … also … narcissists. You don’t care that the God Squad steals from the church because you don’t really care about the church. There’s no conflict.
What’s more, the filmmakers ignore fundamental character traits. The plot kicks into gear when Sam’s academic counselor (an always welcome Nick Offerman) informs him that he’s run out of scholarship money. Help me out with this one: Sam is charismatic enough to lead a fraternity, disciplined enough to attend law school and organized enough to earn a prestigious grant, but this same guy simply loses track of his tuition bill?!
Similarly, if you’ve created an organization like Cross Country, which is, according to Ken, the second most impactful ministry in America, why would such an institution offer 15 grand to a couple of dudes without first vetting them?
While the film does a passable job of satirizing the whole Kony 2012/White Male Savior/Mission Industrial Complex thing, it ultimately comes across as cynical and a little mean spirited. You’d do better to put this one aside and dig out an old copy of Saved.
Director: Will Bakke
Writer: Michael B. Allen, Will Bakke
Starring: Alex Russell, Zachary Knighton, Johanna Braddy, Miles Fisher, Sinqua Walls, Max Adler, Nick Offerman
Release Date: Sept. 26, 2014