“The Case for Christ,” based more on the story behind Lee Strobel’s novel than the novel itself, is one of the best straightforwardly Christian movies made in the last couple decades. Those who know the current state of the genre know that that is not too bold of a statement to make. Unless you count films like “Silence” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” the main competition is the “God’s Not Dead” duology, two painfully generic films based on a somehow even more painfully generic Newsboys song, and “Heaven Is for Real,” which inexplicably costarred Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale (“Bojack Horseman”). In all seriousness, there’s not that much to hate or even dislike here, though. It’s certainly flawed, but when compared with something like this year’s interminably boring “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone,” this newest addition to the faith-based genre is surprisingly watchable.
Firstly, in the interest of full disclosure: The sound in my theater cut out for the first several minutes of the movie – an action the woman behind me blamed on the devil – so there may be some soundbite in the opening montage that fundamentally changes my thoughts on the ensuing two hours.
The quality of the writing is where “The Case for Christ” lives and dies. Much of the investigation, which sees Strobel (Mike Vogel, “Under the Dome”) trying to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ, are about as sermonizing as any sequences viewers are likely to see this year. The dialogue is so on-the-nose that the characters may as well be staring into the camera as they rattle off evidence, points, and counterpoints. It’s painfully expository. Scene after scene is filled with a question followed by a mini-sermon followed by a question followed by another mini-sermon. If someone were to judge the “The Case for Christ” on these, they’d be forgiven for thinking it is another two hour church service disguised as a movie.
But unlike those other flicks, there is something more here. Scenes following Lee around on his actual day to day job as an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune are the best parts of the movie, and the case he finds himself working on is genuinely interesting. When the writing picks up in these moments, the performances gain extra energy, as well. Vogel is fine as the smirking, quick-witted Strobel, but in later parts that peel back the layers of his troubled relationship with his father (Robert Forster, “London Has Fallen”), he downright shines.
More impressive is Erika Christensen (“Parenthood”) who plays Lee’s wife and sells the more emotional scenes that could have — and occasionally still do — come off as cheesy. Much of that comes down to the characterization of Christians in the film, who are portrayed as a little too perfect, understanding and patient. It’s a common pitfall for Christian movies, though it’s doubly disappointing to see here, considering “The Case for Christ” dodges the other side of that coin in demonizing unbelievers. Lee is never portrayed as anything other than a flawed man scared for the future of his marriage. He’s a human being, which is more than can be said for the moustache-twirling atheists on display in the aforementioned “God’s Not Dead” series. An optimist might even say the genre is making baby steps.
Ultimately, “The Case for Christ” is something of an anomaly. The real life Strobel has maintained that his book is for atheists more than it is for the already converted, but it’s difficult to see Pure Flix’s newest reaching that same audience. There’s plenty to like here, and in terms of quality, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of its brethren. It falls prey to some clichés while avoiding others — thank the good Lord, there’s not a cloying Newsboys song in sight. Christians will no doubt be delighted by this movie, and there’s reason to be. But if films like this ever want to reach out of that demographic, more effort is still needed.