Right in time to put you to sleep for the holidays, this drab retelling of Christ's birth is notable only because its 16-year-old star, Keisha Castle-Hughes, was actually unwed and pregnant at the time of the film's premiere. (That's just crazy!) As for the movie itself, it's a real downer, and while many know of the biblical details behind Christ's birth (the manger, the three wise men, that rat bastard King Herod), the presentation here is morosely dull.
This movie showed some promise going in. I was hopeful, because it's directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who made the controversial Thirteen, and has shown some chops as a director. Given the director's maverick tendencies, it would've been nice to see her do something different with this rather amazing story and create a film that did it some justice. Instead, we get an uneven, awkward film wherein the main directives seemed to be "mope and glare."
This isn't the story of Jesus, but the preamble to Jesus. I had an illustrated Bible when I was a pup, and it's as if Hardwicke used that very book as her storyboard. Everybody wears super-bitchin' ornate robes; there are donkeys everywhere; all the dudes look like Cat Stevens circa 1973.
Seriously though, why is everybody so somber in this movie? You find yourself aching for the birth of Christ, not because he's the savior of all mankind, but because you pray a little baby will liven things up a bit. And the baby playing the J-Man is a cute little bugger, I'll give the filmmakers that. I think he's the only person to crack anything resembling a smile in this fiasco. No wait, I do recall that Mary smiles once. Once.
So, what interesting things does The Nativity Story tell us about Christ, his mom and his awesome stepdad, Joseph (Oscar Isaac)? Well, it appears that Joseph was handy with a hammer, because we often see him smacking things randomly on his table looking all determined. Also, not only does he look like Cat Stevens ... he's his doppelganger! It wouldn't have been at all surprising if he had busted out an acoustic and performed "Peace Train." Or maybe "The Wind," that lesser-known chestnut that appears on the Rushmore soundtrack. Love that song.
Joseph and Mary's harrowing trip to Bethlehem merits absolutely no suspense, because we are pretty sure they'll make it (or else we wouldn't have The 700 Club or Jesus Camp). Apparently, the birth of our Lord was almost canceled by an evil water snake spooking a donkey. The snake scene culminates with a whitewater rescue of Mary by Joseph, a lame try by Hardwicke to inject some action into the dull proceedings.
In an attempt to provide the film with some comic relief, Hardwicke portrays the Three Wise Men as The Three Wisecracking Goofballs constantly quarrelling with each other. The scenes strain for humor, and fail miserably. This year's Overacting Achievement Award goes to Eriq Ebouaney, who plays Balthasar. When he presents his gift of frankincense at the birthplace of Christ, his exaggerated look and painfully slow motions are hilarious, yet this is a point where we aren't supposed to be laughing.
As for Mary, Hughes's performance qualifies as one of the year's worst. Her range of emotion goes from "just awoken" to "mildly amused." Didn't Hardwicke and producers figure that the mother of Jesus Christ had at least a small dose of charisma?
I'll give the film credit for one striking visual, when the star beams down into the manger and illuminates the sheep. Other than that, there really isn't much to praise here, unless you are keen for one treacherously lousy Sunday school lesson.