‘The Young Messiah’
Director: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Stars: Adam Greaves-Neal, Sean Bean
1 Globe (out of 5)
Patton Oswalt has a well-known bit wherein he imagines running into George Lucas right before he embarked on his dreaded “Star Wars” prequels. At first Oswalt can barely contain his glee, stoked to hear there will be more of his favorite movies. Then Lucas reveals that, yes, he’ll be seeing beloved characters but only as sad little kids. “That sounds awful,” Oswalt replies, and he's right.
Imagine an evangelical version of the comic meeting the makers of “The Young Messiah,” and you’ll get an even drearier exchange. This coma-inducing number savvily skips the oft-told business about Jesus — you know, the stuff that's in scripture — but only to tell the totally made-up story about that time he was a wee lad (played by button-cute Adam Greaves-Neal) who ran through fields while smiling and brought birds and bullies back to life. At least “The Phantom Menace” had pod racing.
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Unimaginative Jesus fan-fiction based on the novel “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” from gay vampire fanatic Anne Rice’s brief dalliance with evangelical Christianity, “Messiah” has the germ of an idea: It imagines JC at age 7 on the cusp of learning he’s not just your average Nazarene young pip, with mysterious abilities to raise the dead and maybe even inspire the weather. That discovery is put off till the coda, but it could fuel an entire, rich movie. It would also be a bit too like Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” whose notion that Christ was just some guy wrestling with unimaginable responsibility is technically blasphemy.
And so, neutered and shapeless, “The Young Messiah” plods through what becomes a leisurely road movie, with young Jesus sauntering with the fam to Nazareth. He also has to evade a brooding centurion (Sean Bean) who’s been tasked by Herod (Jonathan Bailey) with finding and executing him with extreme prejudice. Sometimes the boy Jesus spots a devilish figure (Rory Keenan) only he can see, one with dye-blond hair and the ability to poison the thoughts of randos. He’s snicker-inducing, but he has nothing on the Eminem demon in “The Passion of the Christ.”
“Messiah” fits right into a cinematic landscape choking on sequels and prequels and spinoffs and one-offs. But it also has the misfortune to arrive soon after “Risen,” a dirtier, unpretentious affair that offered an unusual look at a tale everyone knows: It viewed the Resurrection from the Roman side, turning the gospels into an episode of "CSI." “Messiah” is all pretentions, complete with an opening swoop-down to our superhero, bathed in a halo of light so blinding you can barely see his gee-whiz grin.
Despite being a studio film produced by “Home Alone”’s Chris Columbus, it looks TBN-cheap, with costumes seemingly on loan from the local church Nativity play. Directed by libertarian-conservative Cyrus Nowrasteh (of the factually contested TV movie “The Path to 9/11”), it’s a film of declarative dialogue, a groaning token comic relief (an uncle played by Christian McKay, who's prone to pointing out the obvious) and cheesy music and sound cues, including sonic whooshes whenever something bad’s afoot.
It does, however, offer some rewarding looks at the socio-economics of the era, even though it tends toward reactionary shorthand. Herod’s a beyond lascivious playboy lounging and slinking about his lair, sometimes stabbing snakes. Still, it's anodyne compared to Nowrasteh's "The Stoning of Soraya M.," which plowed into Iran's gender politics with all the finesse of Charlize Theron driving her monster truck through the desert of "Mad Max: Fury Road." It features dull characters arcs;Bean’s centurion is there to gouge a lot of people then flip-flop. Bean brings wearied gravitas that often looks like confusion, as though he thought he'd signed up for Joseph Fiennes’ very similar role in “Risen.” That film was only half-good, but it’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” compared to this sleepy, powerfully un-vital bid for evangelical funbucks.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge