In Theaters: Ben-Hur (or Ugh-Why)

Guys, can we talk about that new BEN-HUR movie? The one that maybe, probably didn’t need to be remade? The one with my man Toby Kebbell who is like a million times better than this? I’m trying really hard to be objective and open and tolerant and all that shit but sweet Lort Baby Jesus, this is a mess of biblical proportions.

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First, let me get this out of the way. From a technical standpoint, BEN-HUR ain’t all that bad. I mean the cinematography is fine, the editing is solid, the script isn’t that painful, the acting is just…you know, ok. And there are two specific action sequences that show the serious directing power that Timur Bekmambetov (NIGHT WATCH, DAY WATCH, WANTED, and ok, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER) possesses. He’s a fucking good director, no doubt. This ain’t about Bekmambetov. Or maybe it is. Keep reading.

My main problem is…the story is based on a long-ass book. And that long-ass book has a lot of characters and plots and sub-plots and twists and turns. So when you try to condense that down to a cohesive, interesting, plausible two-hour film, you’re gonna run into some issues. The beginning of this new BEN-HUR promptly sends us to the famous charioteer showdown between hero Judah Ben-Hur (pretty but boring, pretty boring Jack Huston) and his nemesis Messala Severus (my boy Toby Kebbell) for all of three seconds before shuttling us back, back, back in time, EIGHT YEARS PRIOR. Come on man, I don’t got time for that! If we’re gonna go back eight friggin’ years can we just turn this into a miniseries? Preferably a British one. With lots and lots of decorated British actors. On the BBC. So the whole time you’re watching you can be like. “I love that guy!” And, “Oh my god, she’s in this? I loved her in that thing I watched on Netflix that one time!” A whole string of that guy’s and that girl’s who you’ve seen and loved in nearly every goddammer ever, but never thought to look up on IMDb. Yes, BEN-HUR, why are you not a superbly cast BBC miniseries that will air in the US in approximately six to seven months after your original UK airdate?

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If you’re a fan of the original novel and the 1959 classic Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston, be advised that a few things get swept under the rug in this version, namely that whole gay subtext thing, the Quintus Arrius thing (though his character is technically still in this), and instead of meeting up with wealthy Arab Sheik Ilderim, we’ve got Morgan Freeman in the Ilderim role instead. I don’t have a problem with getting rid of the Arrius plot at all  – we already went back EIGHT YEARS so yeah, let’s trim the fat a bit. Also see no problem with replacing the sheikh with Freeman. Cool. What I do have a problem with is the sheer laziness of making Morgan Freeman narrate this fucker in the beginning and end. How many more times does Freeman need to Shawshank his way through a film? Isn’t he tired? Mr. Freeman, AREN’T YOU TIRED. But really, aren’t we all tired? Mr. Freeman, just act, ok? Act your little heart out and no one gets hurt. Stop Clarissa Explaining It All to me in every little thing. I guess this is one thing Bekmambetov could’ve helped, but again, for some inexplicable reason I’m above blaming him.

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Well, ok, maybe there’s one big thing Bekmambetov is to blame for: making a two-hour long film devoid of nearly any emotion, feeling, or power. That’s heavy considering this is a story about redemption and love conquering all, not to mention a tale of Christ’s compassion and giving in the face of crucifixion. Eeesh. Maybe my heart is too little and black, but I felt literally nothing watching this film. Not one iota of affection and camaraderie for or between Ben-Hur and Messala (you know, EIGHT YEARS PRIOR, when their bro-dom was tight). Not one flicker of chemistry between Ben-Hur and his lovely lady love, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi, always solid). The scenes with Jesus were meaningful but way weird considering Jesus is played by the Hot Guy from Love Actually. I didn’t care if Ben-Hur found his moms or gave up on his revenge quest and converted to Christianity and won back Esther. I DID NOT CARE, I tell ya. And this has nothing to do with the story. The story on its own is thematic and powerful and inspiring. Charlton Heston in the 1959 titular role commands you to watch him, to follow him. Huston and Kebbell try so hard to get your attention when they’re on screen, like little kids at a Target trying to get their parents to buy them something, but overall they lack the presence for such a big, showy epic and drown in all that gilt and dust. It’s a damn shame because they’re not bad actors, not one bit.

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And then there’s the ending. Sigh. The sappy, overly-simplified, wrapped-up-in-a-bow ending. Everyone is happy, content in their newfound Christianity, literally riding off into the sunset while an ungodly pop song plays in the background. YOU THINK I’M LYING, DON’T YOU? I’m not. Couple that with the fact that I was majorly distracted the whole time by the actor playing Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) because he looks exactly like a Euro version of Pacey Witter from Dawson’s Creek. I literally could not look away. Or stop thinking, “Is that Joshua Jackson? No that can’t be Joshua Jackson!” (Hint: it’s so not). But that got me imagining that this BEN-HUR was really just a very special two-hour long episode of Dawson’s Creek in which Dawson has a fever dream that he directs a Ben-Hur remake in the future starring adult friends Pacey as Pilate, Joey Potter as Esther, Jack McPhee as Ben-Hur, and Jen Lindley as Ben-Hur’s sister Tirzah. Now that’s a version of BEN-HUR this girl can really get behind.

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JaimeDavis

Jaime Davis, originally from the suburbs of Chicago, has lived in Philadelphia for too many years. After receiving a BA in Film and Media Arts, she moved to Los Angeles and promptly conquered the film industry with her quick wit and grace. Nah, but she did intern for Kevin Spacey and worked as a casting director for two years before relocating to the East Coast and transitioning to a full-time gig in higher education. When she's not advising students at the University of Pennsylvania, you can find her fixing all the things as The Fixer for the film zine Moviejawn, writing half screenplays, and eating snax. Fun fact: Jaime was born in the same hospital that Cary Grant died in. Which is really just a fact, not necessarily fun.
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