As Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" powerfully demonstrated, lots of people are willing to spend serious money to see films with Christian subject matter. "The Nativity Story" is attempting to tap into that market by Leaving to Mel the Things That Are Mel's and concentrating on the uplifting beginning of Jesus' life rather than the violent close.
Unfortunately for potential viewers, the trailer for "The Nativity Story" has gotten this film's nature exactly wrong. This is not a chance to "experience the most timeless of stories as you've never seen it before" but just the opposite: an opportunity, for those who want it, to encounter this story exactly the way it's almost always been told.
For though one of the film's producers has said that Catherine Hardwicke was hired to direct "because she cuts across the grain of the picture-book version of the movie that could have been made," that's just what the filmmaker and her team have come up with.
Hardwicke, whose work includes the fake-transgressive "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown," has made a super-earnest Classics Illustrated version of the Nativity story, a cinematic Bible class that flatters the chosen but has little to offer anyone who is not already a believer.
This is a pity for several reasons, not the least of which is that, as Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" beautifully demonstrated, truly transcendent films can be made from the story of Jesus' life.
It's also regrettable because "The Nativity Story" wastes the strong performance of 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary. An actress who projects perfect naturalness, Castle-Hughes shows that her Oscar-nominated work in "Whale Rider" was not a fluke by serving as the film's calm center.
Perhaps Castle-Hughes' most difficult challenge is making the best of Mike Rich's painfully sincere dialogue, lines like "Why is it me God has asked? I am nothing."
This script was apparently a labor of love for Rich, who has done similar work for "The Rookie" and (uncredited) on "Miracle." But his type of gee-wilikers writing does not combine well with Hardwicke's less innocent, more conniving sensibility and results in situations that will make viewers wince.
Having an even harder time than Castle-Hughes is the normally excellent British actor Ciarán Hinds ("Munich," "Persuasion"), who is stuck with an oily manner to go with his oily hair and beard as the perfidious Herod, king of Judea. This is one worried monarch, never smiling and obsessively asking anyone he meets, "And what of the prophecy, the awaited Messiah?"
Meanwhile, back in Nazareth, young Mary is being a typical teenager, flirting in the fields with cute guys and pitching in around the house. She is hardly prepared for being told by her parents that she is betrothed to the slightly older Joseph (Oscar Isaac), and, in true "Thirteen" fashion, she gets a little pouty about it.
Things change radically, however, when the Archangel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig) arrives and tells Mary what is in store for her. She visits her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and when she returns visibly pregnant, she gets to play the ultimate misunderstood teen, telling her parents and her fiancé, "I have broken no vow, I have told the truth."
While this is happening in earnest, "The Nativity Story" periodically checks in on the three wise men, who whine and bicker and are in general played as much for comic relief as anything else. One of them is fond of saying, "If I am right, and I usually am," and threatens not to go to visit the newborn Jesus because he can't move a muscle without his dates and nuts and wine. There's even a line about forgetting the map, but you get the idea.
As Herod glowers and insists "I will end this threat to my rule" and the wise men schlep through picturesque deserts, Joseph and the pregnant Mary return to Joseph's hometown of Bethlehem for a Roman census, bonding with each other over the difficulties of the trip.
And when Jesus is finally born, the star the wise men have been following illuminates the manger like a massive searchlight at a big studio premiere. When Hollywood faces off against religion, you don't even have to ask which force will come out on top.
MPAA rating: PG for some violent content. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. In general release.