Trying to have it both ways, “Believe Me” attempts to be not only a satire on the tactics of evangelical Christian organizations but a message movie about how religion can change a hard-hearted person’s attitudes. It doesn’t work particularly well in either capacity, but has a few good moments.
The picture begins in cynical mode as four frat brothers in need of money—Sam (Alex Russell), Tyler (Sinqua Walls), Baker (Max Adler) and Pierce (Miles Fisher)—hit on the idea of preaching about a phony charity to crowds of committed believers, collecting their donations and then just pocketing the cash. The scheme is the brainchild of Sam, who’s just learned from a college official (Nick Offerman) that his scholarship has run out and has to raise $9,000 to finish his degree and head off to law school. He also comes up with the idea behind the charity—“Get Wells Now!”—which will provide much-needed fresh water to drought-ridden areas of Africa.
Though their first session has more than a few hiccups, Sam eventually hits his stride, and they’re approached by promoter Ken (Christopher MacDonald), who’s arranging a cross-country fundraising tour, to join his venture. Seeing it as an opportunity to travel as well as rake in more loot, they agree. Things seem to go well, although Gabriel (Zachary Knighton), the secular-minded tour singer, has his suspicions of the guys’ motives, especially after Sam shows an interest in Callie (Johanna Braddy), the sweetly sincere missionary who’s caught his eye, too.
As the group moves through the South to Dallas, it finds itself increasingly at odds. Tyler voices concerns about the propriety of what they’re doing, and though Pierce remains the cynic he started out as, Sam undergoes a gradual change, brought about, in part at least, by his desire to prove himself to Callie. Gabriel finally brings matters to a head when he gives proof of the quartet’s perfidy to Ken, whose unexpected reaction shows more pragmatism than principle. But though caught in a legal bind, the foursome continue their evolution from reckless frat boys to serious men.
So the message and trajectory of “Believe Me” are pretty clear—and so is the motivation behind the picture. In effect it wants to have its cake and eat it, too—giving the audience some raucous action with its cynical, money-grubbing college boys (and making the Christian crowds they fleece look naïve and rather stupid in the process), but then switching gears to show how they’re changed for the better by the very religion they’ve mocked. That scheme might conceivably have worked had it been carried off with some finesse—or, conversely, had shot for the moon like another movie about con-men, Mel Brooks’ “The Producers”—but here the treatment is pretty much a bare-bones, workmanlike job, with director Will Bakke and cinematographer John W. Rutland apparently not doing much more than pointing the camera in the right direction and saying “Action.” That leaves most of the work to the cast, who respond with performances that often would have benefited from a restraining hand. That’s especially true of Offerman, whose one scene as the burned-out college officer is so over-the-top that it comes across as bad improv. McDonald is almost equally broad. In fact, it’s Knighton who comes off best as the rocker who turns out to have a sense of what’s right—unlike most of those around him. The technical credits are generally okay, but no more.
Still, there are moments when the movie hits the target—especially the ones where the frat boys are designing appalling T-shirts, or barnstorming about preaching tactics (the gestures that work, or the keywords that can get an audience up to fever pitch). Unfortunately, they’re not enough to raise what might have been a sharp, perceptive take on the rah-rah side of modern Christianity above the level of mediocrity.