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Old-Time Religion

[whitespace] The Apostle
Van Redin

Fade to Pray: The spirit is willing but the flesh is feuding for hard-charging evangelist Sonny Dewey (Robert Duvall) and his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett).

Robert Duvall reaches to preach in 'The Apostle'

By Richard von Busack

THE BEGINNING of director/star Robert Duvall's The Apostle whets the appetite for a gospel version of Daryl Duke's 1973 classic, Payday, which starred Rip Torn as a country singer on a downward spiral. The Apostle starts with the similarly speedy descent of a suburban Texas Pentacostal preacher, "Sonny" Dewey (Duvall), who loses wife, church and family in about 20 minutes.

Charismatic preachers are usually treated as a joke in the movies. Those who are not regular listeners probably never consider how strong their talents are. Watching the well-fed Jerry Falwell, it's easy to forget how he came up from poverty, how he must have taught himself everything he knows about psychology and salesmanship.

For The Apostle, Duvall has brought together a cast that includes some real-life evangelicals who show off how varied preaching styles can be. During the opening scenes, Duvall, who learned well, is as hypnotic as a Christian in a double bind. Early on, Duvall has a superb scene, muscling his way to a roadside wreck and persuading a half-dead accident victim to accept Jesus. Having triumphed, he drives back home with his beloved mom (recognizable by her singing voice as June Carter Cash). This is the top for Dewey, the last good moment before the trouble starts.

Dewey isn't about to stay down long. After his fall, he hides out in a small bayou town in Louisiana. As a tireless promoter and a shade-tree mechanic, he's able to hire scads of adorable children to paint a beat-up tabernacle. He also fends off a local bully (Billy Bob Thornton, shoehorned into the story) and catches the attention of a woman (Miranda Richardson) separated from her husband. Inevitably, Dewey loses everything for a chance for redemption.

Duvall is trying to honor the moral fiber of the Southern preacher, and on one level, he succeeds. I doubt that even a deep-dyed Christian could object to The Apostle. But what starts like Payday ends like a sweetened remake of The Lilies of the Field.

I don't buy the argument that a film should be admired solely because there are so few others like it. Admiring The Apostle means ignoring the almost lunatic miscasting of Richardson, whose strangeness on the small-town scene isn't squared by a few lines on the pattern of "What's a nice girl like you doing in a town like this?" Even worse, Farrah Fawcett has made an unwise comeback choice with her role as yet another beat-up woman. Notice also how nondenominational Dewey's preaching is. It contains nothing that might cause a liberal discomfort--not a word about abortion or homosexuality, for example.

The Apostle is Duvall's movie, and he makes sure we're always watching this polyester-suited bantam he's created. At his best, Duvall does put on the kind of show you'd want to get up early on a Sunday morning to see. But by the end, he's a martyr, playing to the pews. Duvall is reaching for the intimacy of the best movies of the '70s, but like Traveller before it, this is just big-movie corn on a small scale, a '90s idea of a '70s movie.

The Apostle (R; 131 min.), directed and written by Robert Duvall, photographed by Barry Markowitz and starring Duvall, Farrah Fawcett and Miranda Richardson.

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From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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