That “God” is listed as executive producer in the credits of I’m in Love with a Church Girl, the new Christian-themed rom-com starring Jeff “Ja Rule” Atkins, Stephen Baldwin, Michael Madsen, and the ex-lead singer of DC Talk, is not only a funny talking point, and half my reason for seeing it in the first place, it actually speaks to an entire philosophy, where capitalism and religion are wrapped up with each other so intimately that it’d be considered a sin if they weren’t married (preferably presided over by the hip pastor of a mega-church). Ja Rule plays an ex-drug dealer (“Miles Montego”) who drives a Bentley. The pastor at his love interest’s church pulls up to the first service in a white Lamborghini. “It’s like a sold out show!” Ja observes.
Ja lives in an eight bedroom house by himself, and even his churchy new girlfriend who lives with her parents drives a brand new silver Sebring convertible, which is not only lovingly depicted, but directly commented on by the characters. Everything in this movie feels like an infomercial. She affords this ride ostensibly by working in a Christian-themed mall store, a sort of Hot Topic for nü-Christians, where the black light posters all quote Psalms and the bongs are filled with holy water (I assume). “I guess Christians are a pretty big market,” Ja observes, as if appealing directly to a future investor. “They sure are!” Vanessa says, handing Ja a big stack of Christian rap CDs and practically winking at the camera.
Or so hope the producers of I’m in Love with a Church Girl, which features bundles of hundreds as prominently as crucifixes. I went in expecting to see a silly movie, and came out having experienced a strange glimpse into a curious cultural phenomenon, a new kind of Christianity that advertises itself with McMansions that God built. For a religion started by a martyred egalitarian hippie who hung out with lepers and prostitutes and was executed by The Man, its supposed adherents sure seem obsessed with Earthly wealth. It’s a bad movie, but a fascinating watch.
The film opens with drug lord Ja Rule sitting around a table of cheesy, ethnically-diverse henchmen, one of whom is a 40-year-old white guy who tries to look street by gelling his blond hair into a faux-hawk (see above image, second from right). They play dominos and exchange cheesy greetings, and hand Miles Montego bundles of bills that he puts in a briefcase. “To money, baby!” they toast, which is obviously something that people do.
Miles drives off in his black Bentley, arriving at his sweet mother’s house. “Just putting some paperwork in the safe, ma” he tells her. Ha, “paperwork.” At which point she tells Miles, in the first of many, many hilarious expository dialog sequences, about her twin dreams in life: to go to a Sandals resort, and to get Miles to go to church with her again. Godliness is next to all-inclusive resorts in the world of Church Girl, where acquiring a time-share is as important as eschewing pre-marital sex. Miles spurns her church invite, telling her the only thing he ever liked about it as a kid was the buffet afterwards. He kisses her goodbye, saying “Tell pops I’ll holla at him later.”
“But Miles,” she cries after him as he’s walking out the door, “what’s ‘holla?'”
Next, ominous music and a chyron reading “DEA HEADQUARTERS” take us inside a big building where evil (I guess?) cops played by Stephen Baldwin and Michael Madsen lay out their case against Miles. Their captain, played by Karate Kid II villain Martin Kove, listens quietly, wearing a big black trench coat and sporting a pencil-thin mustachio like Snidely Whiplash.
“This guy wears what we make in a year on his wrist!” Agent Madsen croaks. Even the cops are envious of Ja Rule’s stuff! “Sure, he killed some people, but what really gets me is all his awesome stuff! I mean look at those shoes!”
After a narratively useless nightclub scene where Miles’s crew all seem to be drinking Red Bull and Gentleman Jack (*shudder*), Miles shows up at his accountant Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore’s house for a fourth of July barbecue. It’s there that Miles discovers his two reasons for finding God: Big Pussy and pussy. In an expository speech so long it feels like a mega church TED talk, Pastore cautions Miles against becoming like one of his friends, who only care “what the market closed at” and have no one with whom to share their wealth. “My career almost cost me my family, Miles” Big Pussy says conspiratorily.
“I didn’t know you were a religious man,” Ja Rule says.
“I am, but we don’t like to call it that. I prefer ‘Man of Faith,'” says Pastore, the first of many SEE, CHRISTIANS CAN BE COOL TOO, not-so-subtle re-branding attempts peppered throughout the movie. Sidenote: if you ever hear someone say “yes, but we don’t like to call ourselves that” in real life, run, you’re in a cult.
At the barbecue, Miles meets Vanessa, played by Adrienne Bailon, whose crucifix necklace roils betwixt the twin mounds of her heaving cleavage, so lovingly sculpted by God for the purpose of tempting breast-men back into the fold. Have mercy. So begins the love affair (MONTAGE!) between the repentant gangster and the titular church girl, who makes him sleep on the couch in his own eight-bedroom house after their third or fourth date. Church can be cool, but fornicating is still the devil’s plaything.
You’d think that at some point, Vanessa would try to sell Miles on spiritual richness, convince him that family and peace of mind are more important than sick kicks and dope watches. Instead, all she does is ooh and ahh at his huge house and shiny car and fancy threads with an enthusiasm that isn’t at all diminished after she finds out he bought it with drug money. Oliver Stone ain’t got nothin’ on Church Girl when it comes to porn-y wealth montages. Ja shows up to Vanessa’s mega-church, where he drops a wad of hundreds into the collection sack and is awed by the Lambo-driving pastor played by Galley Molina (the writer of the semi-autobiographical film and an actual pastor). “Last I checked, the Bible didn’t say anything about style being a sin,” Molina tells Miles.
You don’t have to take a vow of poverty, the film seems to be saying. Just slap some crosses on that shiny shit! With his outstretched arms, Jesus welcomes you to a whole new world of bling. But um… isn’t that collection money supposed to go to poor kids or to replace rotting rec center floor boards or something? Are all these people seriously okay with financing their pastor’s Lambo?
After a number of smiling, post-card worthy shots of Ja and Vanessa soaking up the sun at a number of San Jose landmarks (San Jose is where Molina sermons, obvi), Miles proposes to her on a private jet, presumably so that they might finally bang. But movies being movies, complications complicate, faith is tested. The cops eventually take down Miles’ crew (but not Miles). “They left that joint a mess, dude!” Faux-hawk Guy tells Miles after he gets arrested.
Then Miles’ mom dies and Vanessa gets in a car crash and ends up in a coma (OH GOD, NOT THE SILVER SEBRING!). God is a lot like a Liam Neeson villain, always upping the stakes by messing with the protagonist’s lady. This all leads up to a scene of Miles screaming at a stained glass portrait of Jesus as he questions his faith. “You wanna send me to hell?? BOOK THE FLIGHT!” Miles screams at it, before quickly apologizing like an abusive husband. I’m sorry, Jesus, I was out of line, it’s just, sometimes I get so scared…
All Miles’ problems are resolved in short order when Vanessa recovers, his crew refuses to snitch, and Stephen Baldwin decides not to go after Miles. Being a Godly man himself, Baldwin has a change of heart when he sees Miles trying to rededicate his drug money to Jesus and Vanessa, rather than bottle service and sluts at Chez Jack n’ Red Bull. The real winners being the private jet and diamond industries. The only loose end left untied is Michael Madsen, who was in the film for less than five minutes.
Oh, and also there’s a weird scene where Miles’s crew seem like they’re about to gay bash a random couple. “Yo, we in San Jose, not San Francisco,” one of them says to two guys holding hands, before the film cuts to another scene and leaves the gay question unaddressed. With anti-gay bigotry being sort of a sticking point for the younger crowd nü-Christianity seems to be trying to attract here, it’s interesting that this is one of the few points left ambiguous.
I’m in Love with a Church Girl is definitely not a good movie, with Ja Rule being in it just one of the reasons, but the interesting thing is that it makes you believe in the possibility of a church rom-com. Lack of church is actually a big drawback of not believing in organized religion.
It’d be easy (and fun) to dismiss entirely this new Affliction shirt Christianity (Afflictianity?) with all its faux-hawks and soul patches and hypocritical values, but even in spite of itself, it’s clearly offering something attractive (other than breasts): community. A set place to go every week to see family and friends and even meet love interests. Even the credits of Church Girl include pictures of the cast and crew screwing around on set, and sort of feel like a family photo album. It’s hard not to envy their bond. For educated secularists like me, as our social circles scatter about the country in search of start-up jobs and whatever else, we often end up losing that neighborhood bond we grew up with. As much as we try to recreate it through interest groups and online forums and adult kickball and whatever, it’s hard to compete with the old, diverse-by-comparison, suburban, church-on-Sunday model from the fifties, lame as it might be. As if naivete is the sacrifice for community. Maybe we can borrow something from the church model while ignoring the spirit of the thing, like Church Girl‘s protagonists do with their religion. I hope we figure something out soon, because there is nothing on Earth more nauseating than hipster Christians writing boast raps about their cars.
Oh right, the movie. It’s really funny at times, but mostly pretty boring. Call it a D+.