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?