Much like Warcraft and Nine Lives, God’s Not Dead 2 is one of those films that you just know is going to be mentioned on all of the “worst films of 2017” lists. I imagine that it will get a lot of Razzie nominations and it might even win a few.
But you know what? I watched God’s Not Dead 2 on YouTube and I enjoyed it, though probably not for the reasons that the filmmakers intended. God’s Not Dead 2 is one of the most thoroughly over-the-top and shamelessly melodramatic films that I have ever seen. This is one of those faith-based films where all of the Christians are practically saintly while the atheists are portrayed as being so evil that they might as well be tying people to train tracks and twirling their mustaches. This is one of those films where the good guys discuss their plans while sitting in quaint kitchens while the bad guys gather in conference rooms and growl about how much they hate religion. And the propaganda is just so blatant and lacking in subtlety that it becomes undeniably watchable.
God’s Not Dead 2 is, for lack of a better comparison, the Reefer Madness of Christian filmmaking. It’s a film that makes Rock: It’s Your Decision look like a work of subtle nuance. You may want to look away but you won’t be able to.
Essentially, God’s Not Dead 2 takes the heavy-handed sanctimonious sermonizing of the first film and then adds a healthy dash of anti-government paranoia. (And you know how much I love anti-government paranoia.) In this one, Melissa Joan Hart is a teacher who makes the mistake of 1) mentioning to her class that the Sermon on the Mount inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King and 2) counseling a student who is struggling to deal with the death of her brother. (When the student asks Melissa what gives her strength, Melissa replies, “Jesus.”) Melissa is brought before the school board, which says that Melissa has broken the law and that they want to take away her teaching license. Offering absolutely no support is her principal (Robin Givens). Fortunately, a handsome lawyer (Jesse Metcalfe) is willing to help her out. He doesn’t believe in God but how long do you think that will last?
Prosecuting Melissa is … a lawyer from the ACLU! We know that this lawyer is evil because his name is Peter Kane and he’s played by Ray Wise. And here’s the thing — Ray Wise gives perhaps the least subtle performance of the year. When he talks about the importance of convincing America that there is no God, he does so with the type of evil gleam in his eye that we typically tend to associate with lower tier MCU villains. When he cross-examines Melissa’s students, he smirks like a serial killer. Whenever he has to say words like “God” or “Jesus,” he literally spits them out. The only thing that trips him up is when a Christian admits to having once been an atheist and Wise looks so stunned that you half expect him to say, “But that is illogical and does not compute” before revealing that he’s actually a robot sent from the future. He’s one of the most evil characters of all time and Wise so throws himself into the role that you can’t help but enjoy watching him.
So, on the one side, you have Ray Wise spitting hellfire and, on the other side, you have a literally beatific Melissa Joan Hart. And let’s give credit where credit is due — Melissa Joan Hart does as well as anyone could with her seriously underwritten and kinda drab character. (Add to that, Melissa Joan Hart was Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and, therefore, I will always give her the benefit of the doubt.)
Meanwhile, there’s another subplot going on. The local preacher — who somehow manages to get on the jury, despite the fact that there’s no way a preacher would actually be put on the jury of trial that centered around separation of church and state — is being pressured by the local authorities. They want to see copies of his sermons. Damn government!
Of course, what’s interesting is that this actually did happen in Houston. In 2014, several preachers were presented with subpoenas demanding copies of their sermons, in order to determine if they had been preaching against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. For that matter, there was also recently a story down here about a high school football coach who lost his job because he led his team in a prayer. There is a basis in reality for both of the film’s main storylines but you’d never guess that from watching God’s Not Dead 2. God’s Not Dead 2 is so melodramatic and so firmly devoted to its good-vs-evil worldview that it sacrifices whatever real world credibility it could have and probably does more harm than good to the cause that it supports.
That being said, it’s a fun movie in much the same way that the Atlas Shrugged trilogy was fun. It’s just so silly and over-the-top that you can’t help but watch. I imagine that believers will enjoy seeing the nonbelievers ridiculed while nonbelievers will enjoy shaking their head and saying, “How can anyone buy into this?” By taking the side of half the audience but doing so in a way that seems to confirm every pre-conceived notion held by the other half, God’s Not Dead 2 appeals to all.
If nothing else, Ray Wise deserves some sort of award for perfecting the art of villainous overacting. Though this year, he may have to share it with Kyle Secor. Secor’s work in The Purge Election Year is impossible to top but Ray Wise sure does come close.
Overacting is not dead.