Knowing almost nothing about this filming of The Nativity Story before I went to see it, I imagined that I might enjoy it if, somehow, Joseph and Mary were shrunk down to human dimensions. The trials of two young adults on a 100-mile foot journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, attempting to make King Herod's April 15th tax deadline, could make a decent yarn. Unfortunately, director Catherine Hardwicke had something different in mind. She forgoes a reality-based rendering of the myth in favor of a heap of prophecy-babble and a weirdly off-topic astrology subplot, both of which plant the film on uneasy ground in the realm of signs and wonders. The couple's journey is prompted by a visit from a descending angel who looks, incredibly, like a Commodores-era Lionel Richie. He clues them that they are inside The Greatest Story Ever Told, and from then on, Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Joseph (Oscar Isaac) speak of the fetus Jesus as if he's already turned water into wine. If you've ever been around new parents, you know how annoying that can be.
As the power couple descend on Bethlehem, we are forced to endure a B-story involving the three 'wise men' of scripture, crazily interpreted here as a trio of sideshow occultists who live in a dusty lair filled with cheap-looking pieces of astrology equipment and maps that look like kiddie placemats from Denny's. When used together, they can apparently foretell the birth of celebrities. These wise men made me want to pull my hair out. They engage in endless, pointless bantering about which star-map will get them to the Messiah's birthplace, while tossing off one-liners that were old when Shecky Green was a boy, nevermind Jesus. If the film has a weakest link, it's these scenes. They're so self-parodic that they seem purposefully inserted to kill whatever religious buzz the true believers in the audience might build up. Shouldn't a story about the birth of God be told with a straight face? Is the source material really so thin that this kind of filler, not fit for Saturday morning cartoons, had to be included?
A hodgepodge of invented crises pop up to thwart Mary and Joseph on their journey, some familiar, some not. I remember the inn with no vacancy, but which verse should I consult to find the scene where Mary gets carried downriver by roaring rapids? Meanwhile, King Herod, played by Ciaran Hinds, who is far too good for the role, is shown fretting with his no-good son over the prophecy he knows will come true under his nose. Like every other character in the film, he's been given the script in advance. Herod will eventually learn, of course, that the Messiah is not leading an invading army but arriving from the womb. That's when he orders that all males under the appointed age be slaughtered. This brutal event is treated like a sidebar in the film, with a few shots of soldiers passing through the darkened doorways of homes, followed by muted screams. It's a shame, because Hinds seems ready to bite into the role of the vicious King, but there's absolutely nothing for him to play around with.
The two leads, Castle-Hughes and Isaac, are understandably lost at sea, having to play 'modernized' versions of characters that are nothing more than vague sketches even in the Bible. The only characteristic of Joseph that's known to one and all -- his penis-envy of his son -- is crowbarred into the script of The Nativity Story at the most random intervals. At one point, Isaac is forced to blurt out "I wonder if I'll even be able to teach him anything!" in a fit of preemptive frustration at how badly he will be outshined by the kid. Castle-Hughes is reduced to a lot of earnest stares and some insipid conversations with a relative who takes her in after she's miraculously impregnated and facing a village-wide shun. These scenes, like most others in the film, are dramatic dead-zones because they invariably revolve around talk of "the prophecy": whether you have heard it, what you think about it if you have heard it, and what you plan to do to follow it. There is no subject worthy of discussion aside from the prophecy. The characters in this film talk like brainwashed Moonies.
If I didn't know that all movie executives were pure of heart, I would surmise that this film was drummed up through no artistic impulse whatsoever, but rather to part some fools from their frankincense and myrrh. From start to finish, it gushes with insincerity and contains such weird clashes of style -- one minute Lord of the Rings, another minute, Passion of the Christ -- that it's hard to imagine that it had less than three directors. There have been a number of stories taken from the Bible and turned into films -- The Ten Commandments comes to mind -- which were just as fantastical as The Nativity Story, but somehow they found a way to blend the magic realism elements and the human stories into a satisfying confection. I can't imagine that this is the last time the story of the carpenter and his wife will be put to screen. The story has legs, obviously. The next director who decides to give it a spin should do us all the favor of at least approaching the material with some degree of sincerity.