Review | ‘Honk for Jesus’ satire targets hypocrisy, leaves a sour aftertaste

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(2 stars)

By the standards of satire, the target of religious hypocrisy is a pretty low-hanging fruit. And so it takes no great bravery or effort to lampoon fake piety, as the filmmaking duo known as the Ebo twins (writer-director Adamma Ebo and her producer sister, Adanne Ebo) do in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” An expansion of their micro-budget 2018 short film by the same name — yet hardly a deepening, despite a welcome casting upgrade in the persons of Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall — the comedy “Honk” takes its cues from a real-life scandal involving Bishop Eddie Long, the late leader of Georgia’s New Birth Missionary Baptist megachurch, who in 2010 was accused of sexual impropriety with young men.

Bishop Eddie Long, Georgia megachurch leader who faced sex coercion suits, dies at 63

Here, the stand-in for Long is Brown’s Lee-Curtis Childs, the similarly disgraced pastor of a Georgia megachurch who, with his wife, Trinitie (Hall), is working a PR campaign to lure back the members of his once-25,000-strong congregation who have fled to a rival ministry, run by husband-and-wife co-pastors (actor-musician Conphidance and Nicole Beharie). To that end, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie have invited an unseen documentarian to film them, reality-TV-style, which opens the door to comedic contradictions between their public and private personas, a la “The Office.”

“Honk” utilizes that promising premise — and the considerable talents of Hall and Brown — reasonably well, if inconsistently. In addition to the fly-on-the-wall scenes, which show the Rev. Childs and his church’s “first lady,” as she is known, to be, at best, in denial, and at worst slick liars, the Ebos also include just as many conventionally shot scenes, in which the film-within-a-film’s crew is not present. These sequences, which include a sex scene in which Lee-Curtis balks at having intercourse with his wife the “regular” way, and another in which they’re shown singing along to Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck,” kind of take the wind out of the mockumentary’s sails. How exactly these embarrassing private moments were captured is, in the context of the fake vérité footage, incongruous.

But there are some laughs, thanks to the presence of the “Devout Five,” among other things. (They’re the sole five congregants who have remained loyal, for mysterious reasons, to Lee-Curtis and Trinitie.)

At other times, an ongoing undercurrent of homophobia spoils the fun. Until the film’s downer of a conclusion, it’s not entirely clear if we’re meant to be laughing at the fact that Lee-Curtis doesn’t respect his marriage vows, or the fact that he’s on the down-low — a closeted gay man who can’t be honest about who he is. (The film makes clear that his predation of young men did not involve literal minors, but there’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s okay to be snickering at a man who’s attracted to other men.)

In the end, it’s Hall who steals the show, and wrestles back the focus of the audience to her. But what starts out as a giddy comedy ends on a note of tonally bizarre sobriety. Yes, “Honk” picks some low-hanging fruit. But it also, as it turns out, leaves a sour aftertaste in the mouth.

R. At area theaters; also available on Peacock. Contains coarse language and some sexual situations. 103 minutes.



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