Divine Access doesn’t hold any almighty answers to questions of existence, mainly because it doesn’t have to. Filmmaker Steven Chester Prince isn’t here to expose religion, but to investigate a flock’s mentality through the vision of one enlightened soul. In a very Don Verdean kind of way, this is a redemptive story about false prophets, and the power that holy command holds over people. It’s concerned with questions of how we choose to find meaning in the most simple, straight-forward acts of living that couldn’t POSSIBLY be misconstrued (or so you’d think). You’ll laugh, cringe, and hopefully think a little bit, mostly about how living your life is a lot more important than worrying about what comes next. Praise be to – well – whoever!
Billy Burke stars as Jack Harriman, a southern slacker who spends his time wooing women through higher means of manipulation. Jack knows more about religion than the most studied professors, and finds himself debating faith on a cable-access television show called Divine Access. As a guest, Jack rips apart host Reverend Guy Roy Davis (Gary Cole) and becomes an overnight evangelical celebrity. This unpredictable success kickstarts a speaking tour organized by his producer buddy Bob (Patrick Warburton) that’s full of healing and temptation. What begins as a girl-chasing, food-for-thought adventure turns into a chance for Jack to address his own indifferent opinions. Sure, he can be just another Guy Roy Davis, or he can be a leader worth following – if Davis doesn’t stop him first.
Burke, simply put, is the reason Prince’s dramedy succeeds, as duller road-trip moments are lightened by his character’s ability to turn biblical whimsy into killer pick-up lines. He’s the drifter in need of saving, aided by sharp wits and an enlightened upbringing. With great power comes great responsibility, right? Sure, Harriman is no supervillain or outright bastard, but the subtle ladykiller oozes a borderline sleazy charm as Burke’s performance demands the audience his character gathers.
The role of Harriman is an interesting one in that we’ve seen many on-screen Jim Bakker types trade lies for prophet, but Harriman’s nonchalant approach exposes more about his listeners than it does about him (they can’t even care to get his name right). Each night, Harriman gets on-stage and demands people answer open-ended questions for themselves. He doesn’t give answers, he leads listeners to their own conclusion – which they never make for themselves. When Harriman saves a choking “follower” who swallows a hot dog, his flock doesn’t see CPR being performed, they see a man being pulled from death’s cold clutches. Harriman is essentially Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski as a media preacher, muttering “Well that’s YOUR opinion, man!” with a bit more eloquence, yet everyone immediately latches onto his words – so why not run with it?
It’s a bit of a cynic’s take on segregated religions, which unlocks this communal feeling of understanding without going all “kumbaya” around a campfire. Cole’s Reverend Guy Roy Davis represents that stereotypically phony preacher who gets off on being worshiped, driven mad by Harriman’s lazy takeover. Once Davis whips out his “Mini Jesus” ventriloquist dummy, Cole instantly becomes the most interesting actor in Divine Access – an egotistical madman so broken, he’ll sink as low as possible to find apostles. Harriman needs opposition, and Davis’ high-pitched dementia provides an even deeper look into why modern-day hacks are so desperate to remain in power.
Despite being graced by the good lord (whichever you believe in), Divine Access struggles with some serious pacing issues. Harriman’s quest through self and understanding is an interesting, charismatic endeavor, but it’s overbloated by point-killing hanky-panky and unnecessary exposition. At over 100 minutes, some of the later interactions with additional followers (a prostitute, a suspicious vixen, his sidekick of sorts) drag on a bit, diluting Harriman’s focus. Trim about fifteen minutes and you’ve got a neater cut of cloth, but as is, Divine Access is a bit frayed around the edges.
All in all, the movie is a strange mixture of satire and narrative that just about works, charming in its simplicity yet still thoughtfully inquisitive. The film’s main boon is its three lead actors; Burke gives hope to the hopeless, Cole personifies jealous rage and Moore teaches us about the world of religious “catching” (keeping those who are blessed safe when falling) – it’s kind of like peering into a cult from a position of sanity. But never once does their director outright attack religion, or suggest cult-like activities. People need something to believe in, and this is simply a redirection of where those truth seekers should be looking – namely, inward.
Gary Cole talks through a "Mini Jesus" ventriloquist dummy in Divinity Access, which alone covers the price of admission.