Muddled messiah: ‘The Book of Clarence’ can’t decide whether it is serious or a comedy

LaKeith Stanfield stars as a would-be messiah in The Book of Clarence, a take on biblical themes that looks decent—but feels like a not-so-funny and inconsistent Life of Brian remake.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian stands as one of the funniest films ever made, offering biting satire of organized religion while boasting decent production values—and hilariously random humor beyond its main targets. Clarence follows the basic premise, focusing on another candidate to be the messiah during the time of Jesus Christ, and taking digs at religion and government.

The problem here is that the jokes just aren’t that funny, and the satire is surface-level and milquetoast. Life of Brian was an R-rated, no-holds-barred nasty romp, while Clarence goes for PG-13 and plays it safe.

The biggest problem, however, is that Clarence doesn’t commit to what type of movie it wants to be. Is it a comedy, or is it a serious-ish take on biblical times and the trials and tribulations of the likes of Jesus Christ? In the film’s final act, Clarence becomes more of a real take on the Jesus story—with Clarence taking his place, for the most part, even though Jesus is hanging around, too.

Benedict Cumberbatch shows up late in the movie with an intriguing idea behind his character, although that idea goes nowhere. James McAvoy is the latest actor to play Pontius Pilate, and he looks like he could’ve been great, yet director Jeymes Samuel affords him very little screen time.

The whole thing is confusing, especially during a final crucifixion scene that is bloody and depressing. Yes, crucifixion is bloody and depressing by nature—but this film is supposed to be a comedy. Monty Python opted for a fun little song while its protagonist dangled from a cross. This one has the protagonist dying an agonizing death.

If you want to make a real biblical epic, go ahead and make one. If you want to make a biblical comedy, go ahead and make one. Both types of films have been done many times before, so comparisons are inevitable either way. Clarence looks great, and it’s well-acted, but it’s ultimately a weak entry in both genres.

The Book of Clarence is available via various online streaming sources.

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