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Film review: Strong cast tries to rescue ‘Saved!’

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Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Cassandra (Eva Amurri), and Mary (Jena Malone) eat lunch together in the school cafeteria in "Saved!"

Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Cassandra (Eva Amurri), and Mary (Jena Malone) eat lunch together in the school cafeteria in “Saved!”

Diyah Pera, Associated Press

SAVED! — ** — Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin; rated PG-13 (profanity, vulgarity, sex, violence).

"Saved!" is in need of a little salvation itself. The film is little more than a broad swipe at Born-Again Christians and others who are religiously devout.

What's particularly troubling is that there were obvious opportunities for this dark comedy to be a little more even-handed in its treatment of the subject matter. But too often it settles for the easy, cheap joke.

Like "The Stepford Wives," this satire suffers from a sudden change in tone, getting downright serious in its second half, only to take a lighthearted turn again at the very end. All of which makes "Saved!" feel more akin to a wacky after-school special than anything else.

Up-and-coming actress Jena Malone stars as Mary, a student at a Christian high school in Baltimore. During her summer vacation, she had sexual relations with her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust), to "cure" him of his affliction: He believes he's gay.

However, Dean's parents find out about his inclinations and send him off to a reform school. So Mary finds it easier to simply conceal her summer activities from her holier-than-thou best friend, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). But then Mary discovers she's pregnant. And though her friends are in the dark about the truth, she suddenly finds herself distanced from them and instead begins hanging out with rebellious Cassandra (Eva Amurri) and Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Hilary's wheelchair-bound brother. She also catches the eye of a new student, Patrick (Patrick Fugit), who turns out to be the son of the school's principal (Martin Donovan).

Co-screenwriter/director Brian Dannelly spends most of his time taking swipes at organized religion, and even the film's supposedly sympathetic characters are little more than stereotypes. Yet, the cast does try to redeem the film — and at least ensures that it's not completely unwatchable. In particular, the pairing of Culkin with Amurri (who bears a passing resemblance to her mother, Susan Sarandon) is inspired. And Donovan's conflicted man-of-faith character demands more screen time than he gets here.

"Saved!" is rated PG-13 for profanity (including one usage of the so-called "R-rated" curse word), crude humor about and references to sexual functions, simulated sex (done for laughs), and some vehicular violence. Running time: 92 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com