What Would Jesus See: Fireproof or Religulous?

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Lionsgate Film

Bill Maher, writer and host of Religulous, in which he travels the world speaking to believers about their faith

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"Start praying more"

A homemade movie by the brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who are ministers of a church in Albany, Georgia, Fireproof finished a surprisingly high fourth in box office receipts on its initial weekend, earning about $7 million. With their coup, the Kendricks beat out a movie by a slightly more renowned brother duo, Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading; and they did it without George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the cast. The next week's takings added $5.5 million, for a total of $12.5 million and counting. That's a nice haul for a picture with a $500,000 budget, but it's nothing new for the Kendricks. Their previous movie, Facing the Giants, cost just $10,000, according to the Internet Movie Database, and grossed $10 million; in other words, the film earned its budget 1,000 times over. If Spider-Man 3, budgeted at $250 million, had enjoyed the same return on investment, it could have financed nearly a third of the Senate bailout bill.

Fireproof is a Christian parable, a sermon ornamented with a story, about a firefighter named Caleb (Kirk Cameron) whose marriage with Catherine (Erin Bethea) is falling apart. This theological imperative makes the film an anomaly among current releases. But almost as daring is its tackling of that taboo movie subject, an ordinary marriage. This isn't a weepie, where the beautiful wife is dying, or a thriller, with one spouse trying to kill the other — just two people facing the burdens of living together after the first passion has ebbed, when the idle words and gestures of the person you used to love threaten to ascend to the level of war crimes.

Catherine is upset that Caleb has been putting a hefty part of his salary toward buying a boat while she can't afford to buy her invalid mother a wheelchair and bed. (Another of the movie's distinctions: focusing on money, or its absence, as an abrasive factor in marital life.) At the request of his father (Harris Malcom), Caleb promises to abide by a spiritual regimen called The Love Dare, in which he'll attempt some act or attitude of kindness toward his estranged wife each day for 40 days. He is encouraged in this by a coworker at the firehouse, Michael (Ken Bevel), who tells him, "Don't follow your heart, man, because your heart can deceive you. Lead your heart." Caleb's father keeps pushing the mission, under an eight-foot cross down by the river bank, and when things get rocky the father tells his wife, "We've got to start praying more."

In a cast comprising mostly non-professionals, Bethea, with only one other screen credit, is natural and affecting in a role that begins sympathetically, turns cold just when Caleb is getting his promise-keepers act together and at the end has to melt into a resignation that could be renewed love. The one familiar face belongs to Cameron, who as a teen played scampish Mike Seaver on TV's Growing Pains and has since become the Tom Hanks of the niche evangelical-movie market, starring in the three films based on the Left Behind series of Rapture novels.

To do Fireproof, Cameron took no salary, just a donation to the Christian camp he runs for children with serious illnesses. And since he's vowed to his wife Chelsea to kiss no other woman, he used her as a stunt double for the Catherine character in the one scene that required a long-shot kiss. Apparently he never made a vow to good acting. Playing a nice guy who's close to a breakdown, Cameron is a one-man festival of overacting: massaging his temples to keep his brain from exploding, tweaking his eyebrow line to relieve some midlife migraine, taking his rage out on the family trash can with a baseball bat.

Cameron's emoting is just one of the movie's flaws. But it's not quite fair to judge Fireproof by normal critical standards. For one thing, it's made not to win awards for brilliance or even competence but to sell a message. (The film is stuffed with citations from the New Testament: James 1:19, Romans 5:8 and 10:9, if you're reading at home.) For another, it has some of the charm of amateur filmmaking — a belief in itself, in pleasing and educating its core audience. In that sense, Fireproof is like Tyler Perry's psychodramas (also Georgia-based) with Christian themes and a naive vibe. Fireproof was clearly a community endeavor; the end credits thank hundreds of Albany residents for contributing food, locations and moral support.

In theory, Fireproof is as alien to me as Religulous is familiar. At more than two hours, the film will make those viewers restless who aren't utterly resistant. But there's something affecting about its artless earnestness, its aim to dramatize large portions of ordinary lives that most movies ignore. I wasn't converted, but I was charmed.

(Read TIME's special report, Finding God on YouTube.)

(See TIME's pictures of the week here.

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