Believe Me is a faith-based film that tries really hard not to play like a traditional faith-based film. It doesn’t contain any big miracles, and none of the characters stop to deliver a big sermon at the end. The movie is also ostensibly a comedy that attempts to take a lighter touch in the presentation of its religious message. That’s all well and good. Faith-based films have long had the goal of branching out into the mainstream, and in order to reach more secular audiences, it’s exactly what needs to happen. Believe Me doesn’t further the cause much, though, because whereas most faith-based films are overwritten, this one is underwritten.
Alex Russell plays Sam, a college student planning to continue on to law school until a snag hits. His advisor (Nick Offerman) informs him that his scholarship ran out earlier than he realized, leaving Sam saddled with a massive tuition bill he can’t afford to pay. Broke and desperate, he stumbles upon an idea after witnessing the generosity of parishioners at a local church. Sam convinces his three equally broke buddies to help him create a fake Christian ministry dedicated to improving the lives of poor children in Africa. Instead of using the money for charitable purposes, they’ll simply keep it for themselves. The plan kicks into high gear when a religious organization called Cross Country, run by the very devout Ken (Christopher McDonald), signs them up for a Bible Belt tour. The guys dupe the faithful into filling collection baskets, and before long, they’re rolling in the dough. When a fellow tour-mate, Christian singer Gabriel (Zachary Knighton), gets wise to their plan, the whole operation is threatened.
Believe Me wants to be a satire of both gullible Christians and of those who take advantage of people’s faith for their own personal gain. It doesn’t work on either count. Mocking the sincerity of Christians is like shooting fish in a barrel, and indeed the film goes for easy laughs. One scene, for instance, finds Sam coaching his pals on how to believably pass as devout. His advice includes such nuggets as holding one’s hands in the air when speaking and using the words God, Jesus, and Father as many times as possible in a sentence. That isn’t exactly stinging satire, it’s obviousness. There are one or two jokes that connect — such as one character starting a religious clothing line called Cross Dressing — but for the most part, they’re so uninspired that there’s no real comedic punch to them.
As a riff on the corrupt, it’s even less successful. We never believe these guys as crooks, because the screenplay never fully establishes them as being of low moral character. (A few scenes of them hedonistically partying doesn’t cut it.) They seem like nice guys, and their abrupt descent into hardcore fraud feels implausible. There’s also insufficient setup to justify why they all agree to the plan. Sam at least has a viable reason. The other three do not, and it’s not clear why they agree to take part, especially given the seriousness of the legal trouble they could find themselves in. One of the friends, Tyler (Sinqua Walls), repeatedly expresses reservations, yet continues with the scam anyway. Why? Because the movie would be over if he, or any of them, didn’t.
Even more egregious is that certain characters in Believe Me switch motivations on a dime, especially in the third act. If someone is really committed to an illegal activity, it’s not likely that they will change their mind in a heartbeat. The story’s success rests on the idea that these young men are cynical enough to thoroughly exploit sincere, well-meaning Christians. As played here, it isn’t credible, and the movie falls apart because of it. On an overall thematic level, the intent of Believe Me is to show how the power of Christian goodness and charity can transform the corrupt. If we don’t really buy that these individuals are willfully dishonest, and we don’t, then their conversion is rendered weightless.
Believe Me simply lacks the storytelling and character development skills to pull off its central concept. The plot advances through a series of increasingly tiresome music montages, often an indicator of a lack of inspiration. The actors are good, especially Offerman (whose appearance lasts less than five minutes), but they are trapped playing characters whose motivation rests in plot necessity rather than in identifiable human psychology. The intentions of Believe Me are admirable. The execution, though, is unconvincing and not especially funny.