Rapper/actor Jeff “Ja Rule” Atkins has a strange weakness for a high-profile gangsta rapper: He seems too nice. At the height of his fame and popularity, his persona was full of tough-guy posturing: He was the flagship artist for Irv Gotti’s controversial Murder Inc. label, and he flaunted his muscular, tatted-up torso in music videos and photo sessions. He’s been in and out of prison repeatedly on gun, drug, and, most recently, tax-evasion charges, and his signature as a rapper is a hoarse, hyper-aggressive rasp that frequently veers into agitated, profane shouting. Yet despite his best efforts to seem like an intimidating tough guy, Rule always came off as a bit of a sweetheart.
So when Ja Rule started crooning his way through candy-coated R&B duets and appearing in a Grease-themed music video with Ashanti, it felt less like a betrayal than a reflection of his true self. In light of that, it seems strangely appropriate that this patently unconvincing one-time gangsta-rap superstar has popped up as the world’s most affable former drug kingpin in the earnest Christian romance I’m In Love With A Church Girl.
Though it was inspired by the life story of screenwriter Galley Molina, and stars an actor recently released from prison, I’m In Love With A Church Girl is suspiciously devoid of grit or psychological realism. It goes to such great lengths to avoid romanticizing—or even dramatizing—its protagonist’s past in the drug game that he seems throughout like a pleasant fellow who lives in a nice home and has some sketchy friends he can’t entirely cut out of his life. In order for I’m In Love With a Church Girl to work emotionally, the protagonist needs to undergo profound psychological changes, but Montego simply evolves from a sweetheart of a guy who’s a little skeptical about the Jesus thing everyone keeps thrusting upon him to being a sweetheart of a guy who passionately embraces the Lord.
Rule plays Miles Montego, a mild-mannered former kingpin who has segued smoothly into a new career as a concert promoter and all-around musical maven. Then one day he meets Vanessa Leon (pop star Adrienne Bailon) through his Jesus-loving stockbroker Nicholas Halston (Vincent Pastore) and is absolutely transfixed by her winning combination of grating perkiness and relentless sermonizing.
A man used to sleeping with a harem of beautiful, undemanding women happily enters into a sex-free relationship with a woman who never stops badgering him to find God and walk in faith. Rule cuts such a meek figure as Montego that all he needs is a slight nudge to turn his seemingly charmed yet ostensibly empty life over to Christ, yet the film subjects him to the trials of Job in order to get him to change. First, it gives him an unexpectedly dying mother whose deathbed wish is for Montego to find Christ, as she always intended. Then it piles on a second tragedy/reckoning that has Montego angrily questioning God in church, in one of the only times he raises his voice in the entire film. As a rapper, Rule was fueled by demonic, out-of-control energy, but here, he delivers such a sleepy performance that he always seems on the verge of a pleasant nap.
Stephen Baldwin fills the energy and charisma vacuum with a wonderfully misguided, over-the-top performance as driven, Jesus-loving lawman Jason McDaniels, a renegade intent on bringing Montego and his crew down. In his handful of scenes, Baldwin seems to be acting in a different, more entertaining, more appealingly vulgar movie than everyone else, a cheeseball 1980s Cannon picture about a tough but righteous hotshot who’s all about hunting down bad guys and/or bringing them to Jesus.
I’m In Love With A Church Girl boasts unusually lush production values for a Christian movie. It has the glossy look of a Lifetime television movie and lots of helicopter shots, but the creakiness of its storytelling and its unabashed preachiness betray its origins as a film designed to proselytize more than entertain. It fails on both levels. As a film, it’s sappy, preachy, and sleepily paced, but it also makes walking in faith seem about as flavorful and appealing as a lettuce sandwich on white bread, slathered in mayo.