“The Gospel of Eureka” is only 75 minutes long, yet feels much longer. That’s partly because this cheery documentary — about the uneasy alignment of L.G.B.T. life and avid Christianity in the town of Eureka Springs, Ark. — refuses to grapple with its glaring contradictions. Mostly, though, it’s because of the inordinate amount of screen time surrendered to a tiresome Passion play extravaganza. Watching people watch a stage is just lazy filmmaking, no matter how many donkeys, doves and bleating goats enliven the spectacle.
Cutting repeatedly between the play and a rowdy drag show at a thriving gay bar, the directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher underscore the parallels in the pageantry. The exuberant drag artists applying their war paint share common showbiz purpose with the actor playing Jesus, smearing himself with fake blood (“It’s edible!”) and proudly displaying the prop room’s selection of whips. Like his queer counterparts across town, his lip-syncing is flawless.
Buffing difference into sameness is the movie’s modus operandi. Helped by a homespun narration and good-natured interviews, the filmmakers lock down a “no rancor here” tone that vigorously asserts itself at every turn. Discord over an anti-discrimination ordinance simmers quietly in the background, and a resident recalls his mother explaining his father’s late-life coming-out as submission to “a sexual disease,” but nothing is permitted to rankle the optimism. A truck driver grumping about permissiveness appears like a humorous aside, and an archive clip of a protester smashing a pie into the face of the anti-gay activist Anita Bryant transforms intolerance into slapstick.
Favoring the superficial over the substantive, “The Gospel of Eureka” keeps skirting opportunities to excavate experience — like, say, prodding longtime gay residents about how the town navigated the AIDS crisis. It’s an odd duck on a Bible Belt pond: serene on the surface, but churning underneath.