Will Bakke’s Believe Me is a textbook lesson in how glossy cinematography and an appealing cast can compensate for an undercooked script. Slick and watchable even when it’s tonally beguiling, this con-men caper is so stoked with youthful energy that a cameo by an established fortysomething comedy star only slows things down. The premise—Sam (Alex Russell), a broke college senior, establishes a fake charity with his fraternity brothers to raise the $10,000 he needs to graduate—recalls Risky Business, in that its charming, amoral protagonist is almost sociopathic in his inability to focus on anything other than the next rung. (In Risky Business, it was Princeton University; in Believe Me, it’s an unnamed law school.) Also, Miles Fisher, who plays Sam’s rich-kid pal, is a dead ringer for Reagan-era Tom Cruise (and Christian Bale, too, somehow) who seems to have poached his every mannerism from Cruise’s super-sized performances in Jerry Maguire and Magnolia. He isn’t the only one: Every male actor under 35 in this movie pops his head around so much when speaking that it might’ve been shot in a boxing ring.
Instead of 1980s entrepreneur culture, Believe Me’s satirical milieu is evangelical Christianity. After a single on-campus event for a poorly researched drought-fighting nonprofit, Get Wells Soon, Sam is approached by the head of an established, apparently legitimate Christian charity, Cross Country, and offered a plum spot on some kind of fundraising ministry tour. Sam and his bros recognize an opportunity to skim from a much larger till, and Bakke recognizes an opportunity for Dredd 3D-style ultra-slo-mo scenes of these choads spraying beer in each other’s faces while rolling on beds piled high with cash. When the shy, good-natured Tyler (Sinqua Walls) has an attack of conscience, Sam placates him with a promise: “We can give 20 percent of the funds to a real charity.”
Everyone in the film is mesmerized by Sam’s gift for public speaking, though screenwriters Bakke and Michael B. Allen make it clear he’s just recycling slogans he picked up from a real minister. The Cross Country crew even dub Sam and his bros “the God Squad,” which does not seem like the sort of nickname a group of evangelicals would choose to single out one subgroup in their midst. A montage of the God Squad briefing one another on how to blend in among the Christians is simultaneously the film’s most mean-spirited section and its best: One of them assembles a small lexicon from which users can draw words in random sequence whenever invited to lead a public prayer, while another issues a flow chart with the heading “Should I Pray Before Eating This”?
Allen and Bakke previously collaborated on the documentaries One Nation Under God and Beware Of Christians, but in Believe Me, their powers of observation seem to exhaust themselves at mockery. The film’s depiction of its “genuine” Christians toggles randomly between reluctant respect and derision. Consider Gabriel (Zachary Knighton), a buffoonish vest-and-leather-bracelets-wearing Christian rocker whose songs contain no words other than “Jesus.” The film sets him up as Sam’s rival for the affection of Callie (Johanna Braddy) a dewy-eyed missionary who actually has done charity work in Africa, and seems way too smart not to figure out that Sam’s a fraud. Bakke asks viewers to root for Sam even though Gabriel is—his Bruce Springsteen-circa-1992 wardrobe notwithstanding—the more genuine and honest man. Christopher McDonald is on hand as Cross Country’s executive director, a true believer who makes an utterly unbelievable decision when he learns of Alex’s chicanery, in the service of a climax that plays as sloppily opaque rather than intentionally ambiguous.
Sam remains a cipher to the audience, a guy who seems to experience a small moral epiphany only because a cute girl he was hoping eventually to sleep with got mad at him. And yet Russell emanates such oppressive confidence in the role that he very nearly sells it. With a more persuasive script, he could yet become a fisher of men.