Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: by no means is Moms' Night Out the highest-profile film of the weekend, but I couldn't bring myself to dig up a frat comedy. Also, with the first third of 2014 having produced such a strangely durable and high-profile run of movies specifically designed to appeal to Christian audiences - Moms' Night Out being the last of them for a little while, and apparently the least explicitly religious - it seemed like an appropriate time to look back at the film that effectively ignited the genre. Especially since there's no way I'm going to see any of the damn things in theaters.

Honesty forces the blogger to concede that there's not really any margin in making fun of a six-year-old evangelical Christian marriage drama that got largely smacked around by everyone who wasn't already cemented into its target audience at the time of its release and has since been remembered by pretty much nobody. But having watched Fireproof, I'm damned if I can come up with anything nice to say about it, at all.

Actually, according to Fireproof, I'm pretty much just damned. This is one of "Those" Christian-themed movies, the kind where our designated Infallible Source of Wisdom and Advice sagely observes that God forgives, basically, nothing at all: "His standards are so high, He considers hatred to be murder... You've broken His commandments. And one day, you'll answer to Him for that", says this kindly fellow with a beatific calm that's really hard to square with the fact that he's flat-out telling his son to expect to go straight down to Hell. Given that Kirk Cameron, noted for the intensity of his unforgiving religious zealotry far more than his long-ago success as a child actor these days, is the star and the only apparent reason that the film was able to snag a theatrical release in the first place, this vigorously merciless interpretation of Christ's love comes as no real surprise, though the cheeriness with which it's communicated, like all of us sinners are the jerks for expecting anything better than to have God spit on us, did honestly throw me for a loop, a little.

But this is all missing the real point. Fireproof isn't a bad film because it subscribes to a particularly antiseptic strain of evangelical Christianity and I'm a bigoted atheist; it's a bad film because it's a fucking bad film. In ways so comprehensive and destructive that I frequently lost track of the fact that it had anything to do with religion at all. Stilted acting and tormented dialogue do not discriminate by creed. And the acting and dialogue in Fireproof are terrible things indeed, though the music and camerawork, not wishing to be left out, race as fast as they can towards the bottom to join in the fun.

The film concerns a married couple, the Holts: Caleb (Cameron) and Catherine (Erin Bethea), whose relationship has long since descended into a pure, living hell. The script, by brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick (Alex also directs), would dearly love us to believe that both members of the marriage have contributed their share to bringing things to this point, and this is the first and most fatal of the film's dramatic miscalculations. For anyone not on the ultra-traditional wavelength of the filmmakers, there's no parity here: Caleb is an outlandish asshole and it's hard to imagine there are all that many 21st Century viewers who might be able to see things any other way. He snarls at no provocation, glares at his wife with undisguised contempt, speaks words that drip with stated and unstated insults, takes out his frustration by beating a garbage can with a baseball bat. By the time the film starts, this isn't merely a dying marriage: it's an unsalvageable and irredeemably toxic one. If Catherine is driven to lash out, and to flirt at her hospital job with the pleasant Dr. Gavin Keller (Prerry Revell), it's hard to feel like she's doing anything but trying her best to survive in a situation that she should have gotten out of years ago.

Caleb works as a firefighter, which allows the film to indulge in some powerfully overwrought metaphors, including an opening scene where he angrily berates a newbie who made some mistakes during a rescue that you NEVER LEAVE YOUR PARTNER DURING A FIRE, a groaner of a line even before we actually have it confirmed that Fireproof will be almost exclusively concerned with the terrible crisis of married couples growing tired of each other, urgently demanding that all of us (the movie seems entirely unaware that people might accidentally see it who aren't currently in a wavering marriage) find a way to stay with our spouse no matter how bitter the going gets. For that's what happens, of course: Caleb's dad John (Harris Malcolm) is so disgusted by the idea that his son is contemplating divorce, he insists that the younger man commit to just a 40-day "love dare", in which he follows the day-by-day instructions John wrote down in a notebook. These were the same rules that saved John's marriage to Caleb's mother Cheryl (Phyllis Malcolm), and they include many different specific prescriptions that all boil down to, "don't be the shittiest person in the whole wide world". This proves astonishingly difficult for Caleb to get his head around.

The film is sincere; we have to give it that, since there's nothing else really to give it. The camera never falls down, everything is in focus, and by virtue of all the locations being real-world spaces arranged by various church group types (my understanding is that Fireproof was very close to an all-volunteer movie), the set design can't help but have an authentic, lived-in feel. That's the other thing to give it. All the rest is silence: or rather, silence's immensely annoying polar opposite, since the biggest liabilities in the film happen whenever anyone opens their mouth, or when Mark Willard's chintzy, electronic keyboard-sounding score revs up, or when one of the several montages set to ghastly Christian pop-rock flail across the screen. I shouldn't say mean things about the actors, who were generally not well-established professionals at the time; but they are quite uniformly stilted, some of them proving entirely unable to meet the challenge of expressing emotions through facial expressions or reciting dialogue in a way that mimics the rhythms of normal human speech. It's a tremendous liability that some of the most important performances, and I will not name names, but she plays the protagonist's wife, are also among the worst in this respect. I can only think to call it irony that the acting in this hypnotically faith-driven movie so nearly resembles the acting in a pornographic film: unchanging eyes and a weird tendency for every emotional register to end up coming off as impatient sarcasm.

Visually, at least, the thing is just boring: overlit medium shot followed by overlit medium shot, and sometimes, Alex Kendrick and cinematographer Bob Scott get really sassy by tossing in a close-up, most of which only serve to draw attention to how oily Kirk Cameron's skin looks, and makes one appreciate anew the good work of cinema's unsung armies of make-up assistants who should have been on hand to do something about that. The firefighting scenes are even kind of kinetic and exciting, though perhaps that's because they are the moments where the film forgets about Catherine entirely, and gives Caleb a chance to be a quick-thinking professional instead of an emotionally abusive psychopath.

I feel like I ask this question every time I encounter one of the things, but: why can't social conservatives make remotely decent movies? Or even largely functional ones? Go back far enough, and you land at directors like Frank Capra, unabashed right-wingers who communicated that philosophy with intelligent, visually creative, dramatically compelling movies. Something snapped along the way, and now we end up with borderline-incoherent trash with a scowling, screaming Kirk Cameron barreling through a horribly bland plot with shiny, anonymous visuals that make the whole thing feel like a church group and some kids taking a high school film class got together one weekend to crank out something that resembles a movie for want of any better comparison. It's boring and, frankly, pathetic, too dimwitted and shaggy for it to even be fun to mock.