In this ambitious but failed departure from the guru of fanboys, Kevin Smith meditates on the current philosophical extremism in fundamentalist Christianity and government.

What starts out as a possible teen titty movie about three Midwestern kids trying to get laid quickly turns into an American Gothic tale about an extreme right-wing church lead by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks in a fearless and ferrous performance) and their biblical battle with portly ATF officer Keane (John Goodman in a hero of the day moment). With recent tragedy in Arizona, the film does take on a timely quality, but never fully develops into the balls-out horror movie Smith promises.

Smith’s script is so manic that you never have time to really know any of the characters. Every 20 minutes or so, he wants us to follow a new character who is then quickly disposed of in a hail of bullets or some other malicious attack. For being a Smith movie this is first time you’ll never have time to care for a single character. Even in Cop Out and Jersey Girl, you cared at least a little bit about Bruce Willis trying to pay for his daughter’s wedding or Ben Affleck trying to raise his young kid.

On the other hand, Smith should be admired for the courage he had in taking on modern day psychopaths like Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church and the excessive force of the Patriot Act. With this film, Smith becomes a pure iconoclastic filmmaker, albeit not a successful one, the aforementioned characters Copper and Keane on paper are interesting but are executed with odd beat pacing.

In spite of all these problems, the cast should be given credit for bringing to life this paper-thin material. Parks takes all of his juicy parts, chews them up, and spits out the venomous remains, yielding perhaps the first true star performance for the classically-overlooked character actor. Goodman gets to be the Smith creation of the fat man as the half-baked hero of the day and he does it with haggard honesty. The rest of the cast including recent Academy Award nominee Melissa Leo, Micheal Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Kerry Bishe go through the motions of the film and get cheated in abrupt script changes.

The camera work by long time Smith cinematographer David Kline looks great with its dark browns and grays on the RED camera. They’ve worked together since Clerks, and it shows that Kline has improved his craft as cinematographer with each new film, while Smith has admittedly stayed in the same state of writing since the 1990s.

Without spoiling anything the climax almost saves the movie through divine intervention like in Dogma, but, it seems that again Smith decided against it and plays a lame trick on the audience.

It’s not quite a horror film and not quite a dark comedy, but it is filled with Smith’s signatures. From cameos by his hot wife, Jennifer Schwalbach-Smith as one of many one-dimensional cult members, to an epilogue that only he could write in which the Patriot Act and prison rape are the literal butt end of all jokes. The epilogue for me was the film’s biggest middle finger to the audience, after experiencing all of the shocking violence and satirical religious atmosphere, it comes back to Smith’s signature of dick and fart jokes.

If nothing else, Smith still deserves a mild clap for embracing the stunt artist that seems to be emerging from within and for doing his own thing here.

The Upside: Michael Parks really gives the movie much-needed balls that lack in other parts.

The Downside: A huge overblown disappointment in the material that Kevin Smith takes on.

On the side: The Westboro Church are even more hilarious and scary in person.

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