A movie like Divine Access, with a drily comedic take on religion and spirituality, could easily have turned into a snarky, barely-sufferable affair that mostly appeals to high school and college boys who don’t yet know that they don’t know everything. Instead, writer/director Steven Chester Prince and co-writers John A. O’Connell and Michael Zagst come up with a gentle, sincere tale that manages to be thoughtful even in its absurdity.
Jack Harriman (Billy Burke) is a good-looking, charismatic sort of guy who just wants to be left alone to do his own thing. He likes to hang out and have a good time. And while I might think pure live-and-let-liveism a tad short-sighted, he’s not really a bad guy, all told.
After her divorce, Jack’s mother tried all sorts of different spiritual paths, trying to find what would work for her. Jack grew up exposed to this wide variety of beliefs, and turned out pretty skeptical of them all, picking and choosing useful nuggets where he could find them. So when his friend, Bob (Patrick Warburton), starts a late-night cable access religion show, Jack’s an obvious choice to appear.
When he finally agrees to come on, he quickly ousts wannabe-televangelist Reverend Guy Roy Davis (Gary Cole), and gains a wildly popular fan-base with his mixture of Zen, est, AA, and whatever else fits into his brand of “do what feels right” radical-relativism. A speaking tour soon follows, which will provide the layabout Jack with the income he needs and the groupies he enjoys. He even picks up a couple apostles. Nigel (Joel David Moore) has experience as a “catcher” at revival meetings, and writes down Jack’s teachings in a King James gospel style. Amber (Dora Madison) is a prostitute who Jack finds high and dry outside his motel room, and who refuses to let his lazy, selfish tendencies go unchallenged. But there’s also Marian (Sarah Shahi), who shows up at all his talks and vanishes, seemingly without a trace, always asking Jack how he can offer guidance when he doesn’t know where he’s going himself.
Meanwhile, Prince keeps cutting back to the Reverend, who quickly founders without an outlet for his evangelism. He crafts a “Mini-Jesus” ventriloquist dummy to talk to, which creeps out his boss at the supermarket and gets him fired from his janitorial position. He sees in Jack the cause of his troubles. More than that; Jack is obstructing his self-appointed mission. And so, utterly convinced of his own righteousness, Guy Roy becomes dangerous.
That’s one place that Divine Access parts with the cheap, snarky version of this movie. Yes, the Bible-banger is an object of ridicule — and Cole does some of his best comedic work here — but he also poses a real, in-movie threat instead of just a fumbling ineptitude for us to point and laugh at.
But then the script flips the other way; it’s easy to recognize the danger in certitude, especially about matters that extend beyond this life. It’s easy to throw your hands up and walk away, dismissing it all as so many stories, and congratulating yourself for not needing their comfort. It’s especially easy if you’re a good-looking, charismatic, white guy in central Texas. But it doesn’t begin to touch the real pain and suffering that brings people to his talks, lost and desperate for some sort of meaning.
David Foster Wallace, in his famous Kenyon College speech, said that everybody worships something; we only get a choice in what it is. In Jack, we see a man who through his life has become a worshipper of non-belief. And this devotion to detachment, bereft of compassion, is just a bitter, spiteful rejection of the world. The Buddhists Jack claims to emulate would not recognize in him the joyful peace they seek.
Price doesn’t claim in Divine Access that he knows what specifically to believe, but he speaks strongly and sincerely that it must include compassion, and it must be a positive embrace rather than simply a rejection of alternatives. There is humor here, but no snark.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.