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Culture » Film Reviews

Power Plays

Two satirical comedies explore manipulations and self-delusions by those with power.


  • Focus Features

"Power tends to corrupt," begins the old saw by Lord Acton, and living a life of any length in this world should be enough to convince you that he's right. The way narratives tend to approach such people, however, is to make them clearly the villains. And the tricky part is that nearly all of the world's villains tend to see themselves as heroes.

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. and The Good Boss both take a satirical approach to characters who manipulate power structures—in one case religion, in the other case capitalism—in order to get what they want. The extent to which they respectively succeed has a lot to do with their effectiveness at conveying characters who remain convinced that their harmful actions are justified by how much their power might allow them to do good for others.

Writer/director Adamma Ebo, expanding on her 2019 short film, begins in the aftermath of a scandal that has rocked an Atlanta-area Baptist megachurch. Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) was accused of sexual improprieties, but he and his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) hope to rebuild their ministry as the cases get settled, aiming to re-open their church on Easter Sunday, while a rival church builds its own membership nearby.

Ebo introduces a faux documentary structure, as Lee-Curtis bring in a filmmaker for a self-aggrandizing attempt to chronicle his own second coming. It's a solid idea, but Ebo doesn't stick with the conceit, at times presenting scenes that are clearly part of the documentary footage and at other times peeking in on scenes that clearly couldn't have been captured by the film crew.

The decision proves frustrating, both because the documentary scenes are generally so much stronger, and because that fluctuation has a negative effect on the characterization of Trinitie, who emerges as Honk for Jesus's de facto protagonist. Hall's performance is at its best when Trinitie is clearly trying to put on the brave face of a devoted wife for public consumption, despite the humiliations of Lee-Curtis' downfall; allowing a peek behind the scenes undercuts the moment when that mask finally falls in front of the documentary cameras. And as much as Ebo wants to sympathize with the women told by Christian churches to stick with men who wrong them, she fails to explore how much Lee-Curtis actually believes his own denials of wrongdoing—and stacks the deck with an anti-gay sermon that clearly exists only to underline his hypocrisy.

  • Cohen Media Group

Javier Bardem
Manolo Solo
Not Rated
Available Sept. 2 in theaters

There's a slyer, slicker vibe on display in Fernando León de Aranoa's The Good Boss, set at a Spanish business that makes scales. Second-generation owner Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem) has his eye on a prize from the regional government, but the timing of judging that prize coincides with plenty of upheaval: a long-time employee (Manolo Solo) making crucial mistakes while his marriage crumbles; a laid-off employee (Óscar de la Fuente) making a public protest outside the factory gates; and the consequences of Blanco's propensity for fooling around with young female interns.

The script by de Aranoa gets a lot of great mileage out of the mounting threats to Blanco's carefully-constructed world, and introduces some hilarious concepts; it's a brilliant touch that the front-gate guard constantly staring at the protesting ex-employees' signs starts to critique them for their lack of catchy rhymes. Even as the situations threaten to tip over into outright farce—particularly as Blanco's most recent affair goes particularly awry—The Good Boss sticks to the notion of Blanco as someone who genuinely believes that he doesn't deserve all of this, despite making all his decisions based on filling one spot on his already-filled trophy wall.

Bardem's performance truly nails this dynamic, capturing one of those wealthy dudes who spouts platitudes about his business being a "family" when it's convenient, and feeds himself pulled-up-by-my-own-bootstraps narratives despite having inherited his company. There's a nifty level on which de Aranoa makes his third act a winking homage to the "settling scores" montages of The Godfather films, drawing attention both to Blanco's relative ineptitude at revenge and to The Godfather's thematic connection to win-at-all-costs capitalism. Sure, it's a touch heavy-handed when Blanco uses a literal bullet to balance a broken scale outside the factory gates. But The Good Boss ultimately recognizes that people with power always know how to tip things in their own favor, even while convincing themselves—and the world—that they're not playing with a stacked deck. CW