LIZ SMITH: “Ben-Hur”
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
“Ben-Hur” 2016. Not Good to Love, Not Bad Enough to Loathe. Let’s Just Call it “Meh-Hur.” (Wait for It on HBO — soon.)
“MY EXPECTATIONS were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus,” said Stephen Hawking.
I WOULDN’T say that my expectations for the latest screen reincarnation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” were zero, but they were pretty low. No, not true. Reasonable. I had a reasonable expectation that I wouldn’t hate this $100 million effort produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett.
As we have written here many times, why do people get their Duluth Trading Co. underwear in such a twist over remakes or (in this case in particular) re-imaginings of beloved films?
The negative drumbeat begins before the first foot of film has been shot, and continues to opening day, when it is pronounced “horrible” and a flop by thousands who have yet to see it.
Roma and Mark, whatever one feels about their past joint efforts — or their open, often onerous religiosity — didn’t go out and buy up every copy of the book, the esteemed 1925 silent version (magnificent early cinema!), the fabled 1959 Charlton Heston epic (11 Oscars), or the 2010 miniseries. All those are still here to enjoy. Crack the book or pop in a DVD tonight.
The pair went out, along with director Timur Bekmambetov, and did their own thing. Result? Box-office wise, not so great. Cinematically, “meh.” However if you’ve never seen any other “Ben-Hur” I can’t in good conscience say you’d be wasting your money trying this one out.
It has the look and feel of an expensive TV effort, which is probably how it should have been budgeted and where it should have been marketed in the first place. Television is no longer the movies dowdy stepsister. The medium became a gloriously erratic Cinderella a long time ago.
“Ben-Hur” 2016 is neither dismal nor exhilarating. It just kind of sits there, flat for the most part, but not bad enough to drive people screaming to the exits. Alas, it has not generated sufficient positive buzz or money reviews to place a lot of people at the entrances.
So much of the story has been so radically altered that one might well view “B-H16” as “The Opposite Sex” of Biblical epics. (Film fans recall that “The Opposite Sex” was the nutty 1956 musical remake of Clare Boothe Luce’s famous play, “The Women” — which became the even more famous 1939 movie.)
“The Opposite Sex” had Joan Collins practicing the type of aggressive, venal character that would save her obliterated career many years later on “Dynasty.” (Joan also had to endure a screen slap from June Allyson that shot her onto another MGM soundstage!)
“B-H16” gives us a chariot race that is not-so-hot if compared to the previous ones, but as a stand-alone battle on wheels, with too many close-ups and CGI, fine for an unknowledgeable or cinematically forgiving audience. (And if we remain in this realm of comparison, “B-H16” is a masterpiece compared to the 2008 update of “The Women” — a mighty grisly thing!)
NOBODY leaps lustily off the screen in “Ben-Hur.” Not Jack Huston as the betrayed Judah Ben-Hur, not Toby Kebbell as the mysteriously vengeful Messala. (Whether or not a repressed gay element was secretly inserted into the ’59 version — screenwriter Gore Vidal did love a good tall tale! — it is true that Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd exchanged a lot of “kiss me/hit me/oh do both!” stares in their highly charged scenes.)
Heat is provided by the beauty of Nazanin Boniadi as Esther. (Now we know what happened to her after she was dispatched from Showtime’s “Homeland.”)
The religious element — remember the subtitle, “A Tale of the Christ” — is embodied by Rodrigo Santoro, and he doesn’t register either. Not actually seeing the face of Jesus, as in the 1959 William Wyler-directed version was more powerful, in my opinion. And if you want to be deeply moved, the leprosy cure of Judah’s mother and sister as per the Wyler movie, can’t be beat. (You don’t have to be religious to have a heart and soul.)
The sea-battle in “B-H16” is actually quite effective.
THERE IS however, one “standout” performance. I do mean the great Morgan Freeman who plays horse-trading Sheik Ilderim. (This role won an improbable best supporting actor Oscar for Hugh Griffith, back in 1960.)
Morgan, here sporting a great big head of grey dreadlocks is a hoot. He has so firmly established his “Morgan Freeman” persona, that he can’t realistically play anything other than the actor Morgan Freeman, pretending to be some version of God or the Devil or the U.S. President or Nelson Mandela. Here, he’s a wealthy, wily con man, whose sonorous voice implies so much more that what he is required to say.
Freeman’s distinctive presence in any film is welcome and amusing. He has reached that vaunted position at which people watching a film of his at home, might say, “This isn’t so great, but let’s fast forward to the Morgan Freeman scenes!” (The actor himself seemed to indicate in a recent interview that he accepted the role because he enjoyed the various caftans, turbans and horses.)
Lots of people are screaming in dismay over “B-H16’s” ending, which is very different from previous films. But those previous cinematic endings were radically different from the book source so let’s not carry on quite so much, you sticklers for authenticity.
“B-H16’s” director Timur Bekmambetov is best known for the hilariously silly “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” In all likelihood, that odd film will live longer in people’s minds, one way or another, than his “Ben-Hur.”
That said, this is no worse, no more “blasphemous” to pretentious cinephiles than the recent “Noah” or “Gods of Egypt” (the dull remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s fabulously florid “The Ten Commandments.”)
And just like those two unsatisfying movies, “Ben-Hur” will look a lot better on cable TV, about six months from now.