FILM REVIEW ‌ Crib Death 

Christmas' original story deserves better than this vapid, vanilla treatment

click to enlarge Oscar Isaac and Keisha Castle-Hughes play Joseph and Mary in Nativity Story
  • Oscar Isaac and Keisha Castle-Hughes play Joseph and Mary in Nativity Story

The Nativity Story
New Line Cinema
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Oscar Isaac
Rated PG

Jesus of Nazareth. He's kinda like Sherlock Holmes. Or Superman. Even if you've never read the book about him, or seen any of the movies, you know his story. It's just sorta seeped into the warp and weft of the culture — you can't avoid it.

So why would anyone make a film about him — about any of these characters — that gives it to you straight, that doesn't offer any surprising interpretations, eschews all subtext that might give you something to chew on, avoid anything that might make you look at the story anew?

If anyone says it's a Mystery, I'll strangle them.

Jesus of Nazareth, of course, is somewhat more important a character to a lot of people than even Sherlock Holmes or Superman, and it seems that in an effort not to offend those people, we got a movie that will appeal only to them ... maybe. Slavishly reverent, The Nativity Story is accidentally hilarious in its earnestness — and in its sincere attempts at a touch of humor. It will please believers who don't want their faith tested in the least, who don't want to entertain any ideas that might undermine what they accept as true, even if the questioning eventually only strengthened their beliefs.

For instance, you might expect an immaculate-conception film from director Catherine Hardwicke — who made the harrowing Thirteen, about the secret lives of teenage girls — to at least explore the idea that Mary, a supposedly chaste young woman bethrothed to a good and decent man, might not have been telling the full truth when she insisted that an angel came to her and revealed that God Almighty himself had chosen her for his bride (never mind that Joseph guy), hence the baby bump. This is a culture that stones unwed mothers to death — that much is made clear. But the suggestion that perhaps Mary was raped by a Roman soldier, who do enjoy throwing their weight around, is dismissed as soon as it is broached.

I'm not suggesting that what was always going to be a movie more for believers than for doubters should have completely pulled the religio-mystical rug out from under this tale, but the ease with which absolutely everyone — Mary's parents, her husband, even the folk of their little village — either accept her outrageous claim or seem to forget all about what they believe to be an egregious, taboo-breaking transgression pulls the rug of plausibility out from under the film as a result.

Weirdest thing about The Nativity Story? The Three Wise Men have been turned into something close to the Three Stooges. Holy comic relief, Batman: They all but cock one another in the head as they make their astronomical observations — "That's Venus, if I'm right ... and I usually am," says one of the three wise guys — and argue about whether to make the long journey west to greet the new messiah. Balthasar doesn't want to go. "I need my dates, my nuts, my spices. What about my wine?" What about your whine, dude?

And so we get a movie with all the drama — and more precisely the humor — of an elementary school Christmas pageant, and you may want to give milk and cookies to everyone involved for their effort, but it's still not going to thrill anyone not heavily invested in the story to begin with.

Keisha Castle-Hughes (who stunned us in Whale Rider), as Mary, is lovely, but she has little to do but look pretty and put upon and scared, which isn't her fault; she's got little room to move. (And the poor thing, who is herself now famously pregnant as a teenager, though she does not claim divine intervention, is being denigrated in the press and by some former fans rather like I suspect young Mary herself would have actually been.) Shohreh Aghdashloo, as Mary's cousin Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant with Jesus' cousin John, is as easily elegant as always. But even fantastic actors like Ciaran Hinds (as King Herod) and Alexander Siddig (as the angel Gabriel) aren't asked to do much but stand there and look fabulous in their costumes. And they do. But so do the characters in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular Living Nativity.

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