'Same Kind of Different as Me': Film Review

An unholy, though not unaffecting mess.

This treacly drama about the unlikely friendship between a homeless man and a wealthy art dealer earns a few honest tears thanks to co-star Djimon Hounsou.

In 2014, Paramount Pictures announced a film adaptation of the best-selling nonfiction book Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together. It told the real-life story of Ron Hall and Denver Moore, respectively a wealthy white Southern art dealer and a Louisiana-born African-American homeless man who became friends after meeting in a shelter at which Ron was volunteering with his wife Deborah. The film was supposed to be released in early 2016, then was pushed to early 2017 until Paramount dropped it and the Christian company Pure Flix Entertainment picked it up for distribution. So this has the dual stink of a tax write-off and of simplistic, God-fearing propaganda.

Same Kind of Different as Me is all that, but more besides — earnest to a fault and soft-edged in its approach to faith (God is more in the margins here than he is a central, narrative-driving presence), yet direct and moving in some scene-by-scene specifics because of their basis in reality. Things get off to a very shaky start as we spend time with the movie version of Ron, played by Greg Kinnear with a perpetual hangdog expression and a Texas accent that comes and goes at random. An awkward framing story shows Ron trying, and failing, to pen the very book on which the film is based. Much more interesting is the scene — set two years prior, when the bulk of the tale takes place — in which Ron confesses an extramarital liaison to his spouse, Deborah (Renee Zellweger), visualized by director Michael Carney and cinematographer Don Burgess as an alternating series of shouty and silent tableaux. (It's not Ingmar Bergman, but it's effective.)

It's this blow to their marriage that leads Deborah to volunteer at the local homeless shelter, to which she drags Ron as a form of fix-our-relationship penance. And it's there that the couple meets Denver (Djimon Hounsou), a former sharecropper and ex-convict whose years of hardship have left him distrustful of everyone, white folks especially. The film never entirely shakes off the repulsive stench of a modern Magical Negro fable, in large part because Denver is first seen as an otherworldly figure in Deborah's dream and becomes instrumental in healing the divide between her and Ron, as well as the one between Ron and his crotchety alcoholic dad, Earl (Jon Voight, slicing that MAGA-voter ham thick).

Fortunately, Hounsou has more to play than just a low-level Yoda-to-the-white-folks. There's an aura of tough truth around the flashbacks to Denver's childhood (to the infirm grandmother who barely raised him, to his riverside baptism, to his doomed friendship with the sympathetic child of a KKK chieftan), scenes that Hounsou narrates with an eloquent world-weariness. And he has several monologues — one in an art museum, another in Ron and Deborah's kitchen, and a third at a church pulpit — that come so clearly from the heart that he well and truly seems to be channeling the real-life Denver, whom we see in actual archive footage over the end credits.

This is deeply empathetic acting that deserves a much better framework, as Ron's side of the story still takes precedence. Kinnear and Zellweger do their best with what they're given, but after that striking early marital discord sequence, they're left with little to do beyond acting like the last enlightened white folks on God's green earth — able to deflect generations-honed bigotry and class condescension with an offhand glance or a genteel putdown. (The nadir comes when Ron tells off a casually prejudiced patron in a country club bathroom.) The very horrible complexities of racism and intolerance are simplified in ways inherent to many a Hollywood and faith-based film, all in the name of glib uplift that may salve the individual spirit but solves absolutely nothing.

Production companies: Disruption Entertainment, Skodam Films, One October Films, Paramount Pictures, Reserve Entertainment
Distributor: Pure Flix Entertainment

Cast: Greg Kinnear, Djimon Hounsou, Renée Zellweger, Jon Voight, Olivia Holt
Director: Michael Carney
Screenplay: Michael Carney, Alexander Foard, Ron Hall; based on the book by: Ron Hall, Denver Moore, Lynn Vincent
Executive Producers: Chris Bancroft, Michael Carney, Alexander Foard, Hans Graffunder
Music: John Paesano
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Editing: Eric A. Sears

Rated PG-13, 119 minutes