Saved!, the latest and by far the most ambitious entry in the recent tsunami of teen comedies, is devilishly promising material. It's a backhanded plea for religious tolerance set in a Christian high school. And personally, I like my free-to-be-you-and-me pieties, as well as my message pictures, delivered with plenty of backhand. Daily affirmations go down smoother with a spoonful of stinging satire. For instance, I recently saw a bumper sticker that read "Jesus Loves You. But He Likes Me Best." And for years I've harbored quiet aspirations to make a million bucks with my own sticker: "Jesus Loves You. He's Just Not In Love With You."
At American Eagle Christian High School, the resident bad girl is Cassandra, played by Eva Amurri (Susan Sarandan's doppelganger daughter, channeling her mother's caustic charisma). She relishes being the outcast, hiking up her skirt, parking in handicapped spots - she smokes so incessantly the MPAA specifically mentions smoking in its PG-13 rating. The sticker on Cassandra's bumper is the best yet: "Jesus Loves You. But Everyone Else Thinks You're ... "
The rest is unprintable. Which is too bad because that line has precisely the bite director Brian Dannelly aspires to and hilariously pulls off for the first hour - but ultimately drops in favor of a more evenhanded, ordinary approach that leaves no one, devout or secular, satisfied. There's a suburbanizing and a mainstreaming of religious sentiment sweeping through American society and particularly through pop culture at the moment - thanks to true believers as disparate as George W. Bush, Mel Gibson, and the metal act P.O.D. - and it is an earnestness ripe for satire and certainly not above having fun poked at it. But Saved! is too sweet-tempered and diplomatic, too much of an olive branch, to break the skin.
What's so disappointing about that is how smart it is: It recognizes that one's faith should be resilient enough to withstand a fair jab now and then. And it's at its best when plumbing the contradictions of religious life. As that F. Scott Fitzgerald line goes, it's able to hold opposing ideas in its head at the same time and still function. What Dannelly spoofs, it's important to point out, is not faith or even fundamentalists, but behavior and hypocrisy. Its target is well-honed - that annoying breed of committed follower who espouses love for people of all faiths and beliefs while never showing it and finding plenty more people to hate.
Cassandra, not incidentally, is the only Jew at American Eagle. Her nemesis is Hilary Faye, the school's queen bee, played with obvious relish by Mandy Moore. She's a powerhouse and your eyes never leave her. Her head seems to vibrate with irritation and piousness and self-righteousness; the rest of the cast might be funny and sharp, but it's only Moore who doesn't seem to be acting. Taking a cue from Reese Witherspoon in Election, she embodies ambition without tact, devotion without thought, seemingly measuring evangelism on a quota system - saving "a Jewish," as she calls Cassandra, is surely worth extra credit. She's a caricature, but one with an uncomfortable stab of truth.
License plates tell us this is somewhere in Maryland. But it could be anywhere where Christianity has embraced secular culture - and found the act strewn with complexities and befuddlement. These kids look like the teens in other teen movies, wear the same clothes, listen to the same types of music. Their parents have figured out ways to jibe their faith with their lifestyle. (One mom bills herself as the "No. 1 Christian interior decorator in the region.") But what recognizing outside culture hasn't done is open any minds.
Otherwise, Saved! follows the pattern of your average teen movie. Hilary Faye is followed by a pack of wannabes. Their turf isn't the cafeteria but the moral soul of the school. Their enemies are anyone who doesn't meet their approval: namely Cassandra and Hilary Faye's brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin), whose childhood fall from a tree left him paralyzed and questioning. Occupying the DMZ in these culture wars is Patrick (played by Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous), a Christian skateboarder (and heartthrob) who finds it increasingly difficult to relate to the rigidity of his father, Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). A direct descendent of the gentle acoustic guitar-strumming priest of yore, Pastor Skip is also the principal, taken to leading pep rallies with dated hip hop lingo and asking his students to "Get their Christ on!"
The heroine is Mary (Jena Malone), Hilary Faye's best friend and the most devout student of all. "I've been born-again for as long as I can remember," she tells us. She plays a game with her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust). They tell each other secrets underwater. One day he bubbles that he thinks he's gay. She whacks her head and convinces herself Jesus has spoken to her (it's actually the pool cleaning guy) and empowered her to rescue Dean. This can only mean one thing: She must have sex with him. She does, once, and gets pregnant. Dean is sent to a special school for "degayification." Mary joins the outcasts. And the pregnancy becomes an afterthought, while the story becomes a series of big speeches and ends at the prom where we learn everyone, even nasty Hilary Faye, is flawed.
Saved! is a provocative idea for a movie nowadays and to even get it made was an accomplishment. But the film is the worst kind of good movie: one too timid to be great. And with that pregnancy resolved in an arguably irresponsible way, it's a frustrating one, too. Dannelly never gives us sincere fundamentalists, and ends up making a big target even more obvious. He makes our responses too easy. He demands tolerance but comes off glib in his own beliefs. But frankly Saved! just doesn't sting hard enough. Satire has never been a judge-and-let-ye-be-judged proposition. It's pretty much judgment all the way. Something about that must have smacked Dannelly as overly harsh. He starts with a quiver of arrows and some interesting targets but lacks the guts - you walk out singing "Kumbaya."