by David Cornelius
The problem with “The Nativity Story,” it turns out, is that you just can’t make a satisfying movie about the nativity story. The story is a darn good one, no doubt, but there’s no actual ending here. It’s the first chapter to a larger tale. It’s an anecdote, the movie equivalent of listening to your mom talk about the day you were born.Which is to say, there’s no satisfying end to this movie. We pan up to the heavens, beams of light breaking through the clouds as if a gift from above, and then the credits roll while the filmmakers nudge our sides and, in their best Paul Harvey voice, remind us how “And that little baby grew up to be… Jesus.” It’s a tale that builds and builds and builds, only to trail off at the end, realizing that all the important stuff is in a different movie.
"Hark! The Herald Angels Yawned."
It doesn’t help that director Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “Lords of Dogtown”) and screenwriter Mike Rich (“The Rookie,” “Radio”) seem to be going out of their way to make this the blandest, most inoffensive Biblical epic ever. They treat the story with such nervous reverence that they accidentally drain the life out of it. Here is the story about the coming of the messiah, complete with visits from heavenly beings, prophecies come true, the whole works - where, then, is the sense of awe and wonder? A scene should greet the arrival of an angel with a little more than a “Yeah, well, hey. An angel. Sure, fine.”
The only daring move the filmmakers ever take is in its casting. Instead of the usual hippie-fied white folks, Hardwicke has peppered her movie with the very same variety of brown people that actually lived in Jerusalem and Nazareth and such. (Even Mel Gibson cast a cracker for his Jesus, despite vying for authenticity everywhere else.) And when other ethnicities were cast, they’d be done up to look Middle Eastern. Oh, and Mary is played by a teenager. These are welcome, daring, long overdue decisions, and I suppose the filmmakers wanted to offset potential controversy by otherwise being as respectful and cautious in their storytelling as possible.
But there’s a fine line between respectful and boring, and Hardwicke leaps far, far over than line. Everybody on board - including Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary, Shohreh Aghdashloo as Elizabeth, Ciarán Hinds as Herod, Alexander Siddig as Gabriel, and newcomer Oscar Isaac as Joseph - keeps such a distance from the material that nobody ever bothers looking interested. The idea, I suppose, is to present the story quietly, faithfully, without embellishment, but it all adds up to a massive drag. Even when the story throws in some heavy human drama to keep things moving (Joseph naturally becomes upset upon seeing his pregnant bride, knowing himself not to be the father), it’s underplayed to a fault.
When the screenplay does attempt to spice things up, it fails quite noticeably. There’s a bit of ill-fitting action thrown in during Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, with Mary falling into a river. But the river’s not really raging, and that snake that’s slithering upstream to have a bite can’t produce the intended thrill. Are thrills even necessary here?
On the other side of the spectrum, attempts to lighten things up become downright embarrassing. The magi are presented as comic relief, which, let’s all admit, is a mighty dopey decision. The wise men begin by pouring over astronomy charts and scrolls regarding prophecy, but all too quickly they carry the burden of kooky subplot: one of them comically whines that he needs to bring his favorite food on the journey; another bickers about how often they complain along the way. Their dialogue is all wrong as well, with Rich laying it on thick with junk like “If I’m correct… and I usually am!”
The film does manage to stir up some danger in Hinds’ performance as the weaselly King Harod, yet that, too, gets squandered. Although Hinds finds the right amount of venom for his role, too little comes of it. Is this because we already know that the main characters will escape to safety? Perhaps. But that doesn’t forgive the filmmakers for building up the Herod angle (going so far as to open the film with his command to kill all male children, then rewinding one year) only to let the plotline slide away in the final act. This is because the birth (including the arrival of shepherds and magi) is the climax of the story, the obvious stopping point, the place in the tale the target audience was waiting so patiently to find. Yet the script owes a debt to the Herod plot, and so we’re tossed a second climax that (obviously) pales in comparison and works only in dragging things on just a little longer.Granted, you can’t tell a complete nativity story without the Herod stuff, and you also can’t go around rearranging the Bible in order to make a smoother movie. So once again, we’re stuck remembering that this tale alone can’t work on film. Or if it could, Hardwicke and Rich aren’t the people for it. They’ve made a lovely, respectful movie, sure to give the church crowd a pleasant, PG interpretation, but it’s a Biblical snooze.
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originally posted: 12/11/06 20:06:10