Gibson’s Passion For Slaughter

Crashing into a cinema near you on a tidal wave of anger, controversy, accusations, marketing vulgarity and religious hysteria, Mel Gibson’s overhyped The Passion of the Christ is finally here. Financed with $30 million of Mr. Gibson’s personal money to satisfy a spiritual passion of his own, the movie makes the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus feel more like 12 years at hard labor. Other than that, I’m not taking sides.

Taken from the Scriptures, the movie begins in the forest of Gethsem-ane after the Last Supper, where Jesus is muttering the stuff about danger and betrayal that ended up in Isaiah. Cut to old two-faced Judas, catching a curve ball of 30 pieces of silver. The Roman soldiers arrive and take Jesus away-but as played by Jim Caviezel, the only American in the cast, Jesus doesn’t seem stoic at all. He seems to have a terminal case of heartburn from carrying the burden of absolute sin for all mankind. It’s about to get worse. In seconds, the slaughter commences as the disciples are set upon with swords and fire. What follows is two hours of relentless tortures as Jesus is beaten, clubbed, whipped, shredded, peeled and dragged through the streets of Jerusalem in chains. According to Mel Gibson, the Jews did it. But more about that later. Between atrocities, we see Peter deny his Lord three times, just the way Jesus predicted it, followed by guilt and suicide. Flashbacks to more peaceful times show Jesus in his carpentry shop in Nazareth, the devotion of Mary the Holy Mother and the conversion of loyal Mary Magdalene, who followed her savior all the way up the mountain to his death and resurrection on Easter Sunday. In this script, by Mr. Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald, nobody really wanted to kill Christ except the council Jews who ran the temples of worship among the Pharisees and resented spiritual leaders working freelance. King Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, kept passing him back and forth, fearing a religious and political revolution. Finally, Pilate gave in to the Jews to avoid a civil war, and the rest-depending on what professor you had in college-is either history or anthropology. (I had a lecturer who insisted the Bible was “the Hebrews’ answer to Greek mythology” and made it a trick question on the final exam.) Whatever you believe, there is no way you will remain unfazed by the graphic nonstop violence of Christ’s execution, which Mr. Gibson lays before you like the contents of a particularly horrifying autopsy. The movie catalogs endless details of insanity and inhumane cruelty, while Jesus says: “Love your enemies and forgive those who persecute you.” According to Mr. Gibson, the Jews could have stopped it, but they were blind to all reason, even turning down Pilate’s offer to execute the thief Barabbas instead. They even break Christ’s arms in their sockets so the spikes on the cross will go in flat. And just when you think it’s over and the three men on the mount are coughing up their last blood clots, director Gibson brings on the crows to peck their eyes out.

Obviously, the intent is to make you live through every sordid, painful minute of what Christ endured before God delivered His only son to Heaven, but at the screening I attended, most of the faces were buried up to the elbows. The only way you can survive this movie is to pretend Jesus is not a human at all and just regard him as a symbol of things more divinely inspired. “This isn’t really happening,” I kept telling the girl next to me whose head was buried in my sleeve. “This is just a movie.” Mr. Gibson blatantly insists in interviews that it was Jews who crucified Jesus, not Norwegians. But that is his truth. There are just as many contradictory versions of the truth in the various gospels as there are religions to preach them. And while we’re at it, it seems to me that with events that took place 2,000 years ago, before Western Union, we’re buying a lot of secondhand guesswork already.

Never mind. The integrity is all visible on the screen. The sad thing is that with Jerusalem played by Italy, cinematography patterned after canvases by Caravaggio and the Jews speaking ancient Aramaic, Mr. Gibson has gone to a lot of sweat and expense to make a movie that doesn’t say much of anything new. Been there, done that, and you know how it all comes out already.

Presidential Exile

It’s a pretty bad week when you find yourself torn between the Crucifixion and a thing called Welcome to Mooseport . When this mediocre mush begins, a wrinkled old man is jogging butt-naked down Main Street in Hollywood’s idea of a quaint village in Maine called Mooseport. Nobody cares. Nobody even notices. They’re all asleep anyway. Small wonder. The citizens of Mooseport all seem to be unfulfilled billionaire television personalities from family series who want to be movie stars, all too painfully aware that this benign little trifle isn’t going to do the trick. In fact, it’s a snooze on every level.

The outsider (and only interesting person in Mooseport) is Gene Hackman, in the laziest role of his life, as the only President of the U.S. who was ever divorced in office. Mooseport is to this political windbag what Plains was to Carter and Crawford is to Dubya. And so the recently deposed President Monroe Cole heads for his summer house in Mooseport to write his memoirs, raise money for his Presidential library, and mull over lucrative offers for car commercials, honorary doctorates and a farewell world tour of overpaid personal appearances-but mostly to play golf and pick up girls. Besides, he’s got no place else to go. He lost his Baltimore mansion to the former First Lady from hell (Christine Baranski, from Cybill , Happy Family and other sitcoms). Now Mooseport is his home, but she wants that, too. She’s described as worse (and harder to handle) than terrorists and dictators, and this movie is so dull you can’t wait for her to arrive. A female Saddam Hussein is just what Mooseport needs, sez the audience, much of which is beginning to snore.

But first, we get the arrival of local hardware store owner Handy Harrison (Ray Romano, from Everybody Loves Raymond ), who comes to fix the toilet while Handy’s dog, Plumber (these are the jokes, pal), is humping the President’s white Westmoreland terrier in the nasturtiums. In a sudden panic when the movie threatens to bore itself to death, writer Tom Schulman moves into high gear as the plumber and the ex-President find themselves running for mayor of Mooseport in a race that becomes, for some curious reason, front-page headlines and the focus of every international news program on television. To thicken a plot thin as clam broth, they both fall in love with the same girl, the frustrated village veterinarian (Maura Tierney, from ER ). Mooseport is invaded by the media, by the conniving First Lady, and by various political analysts and advisers, including the President’s bumbling P.R. director (Fred Savage, from The Wonder Years ) and cutthroat campaign manager (Rip Torn, from The Larry Sanders Show ). Regis and Kelly even show up to make fun of the former Prez on their TV show. May the best man-er, biggest star-win.

This much blatant self-promotion sometimes adds up to more of a movie than this tired, sorry little takeoff on Mayberry R.F.D. But nothing of any consequence ever awakens the slumbering populace of Welcome to Mooseport . There’s no edge, no suspense and no tension in either the lives of the Mooseport regulars behind the Cape Cod shingles or in the mayoral campaign. It’s not even a dirty race. In the town debate, both candidates vow to vote for each other! There’s a country dance that gives the cast a chance to wear gingham, and a running gag about a moose on the loose named Bruce. To director Daniel Petrie’s credit, the movie doesn’t stoop to Farrelly Brothers vulgarity, scatology or idiot jokes. But that doesn’t save it from the level of a CBS Sunday Night Movie, either. Under the circumstances, Mr. Hackman is clearly escaping from reality, using the movie like Bush Sr. uses Kennebunkport every Fourth of July weekend. Bound and gagged, he could still steal the movie from his Little League cohorts from TV. Mr. Romano’s nice-guy doofus image is no match for Mr. Hackman’s subtle, tongue-in-cheek craft and experience-not to mention his ability to say the simplest line 10 different ways. While agonizing over whether to return for a ninth season on his own fading, transfusion-needy TV sitcom, Mr. Romano’s big-screen debut doesn’t register at all in 35-millimeter. He’s so bland that the whole movie is like an Everybody Loves Raymond marathon. And don’t even ask what Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden is doing in L. L. Bean country, wasting her time in the thankless role of the President’s loyal secretary and right-arm assistant, whose secret love for her boss goes unrequited even after she follows him from the Oval Office in D.C. to a front porch swing in Mooseport. She must have signed on for all the free lobster.

Mid-Winter Heat

Musically, the enchanting Christine Ebersole is stoking the embers at Feinstein’s at the Regency until the temperature reaches something akin to a midwinter heat wave. From now through March 6, it’s a neat place to keep warm. For this engagement, the acclaimed singer-comedienne who grabbed the Tony Award for her starring role in the Broadway revival of 42nd Street has joined merry forces with a new partner in crime-the swinging jazz pianist Billy Stritch. Together, they expand the parameters of what one usually expects from an attempt to transpose the world of musical comedy to the world of cabaret. Did I say “transpose”? Hell, they turn it inside out.

Humorous and musically challenging, the current act is called In Your Dreams for no other reason than that the people at Feinstein’s seem to think an act has got to be called something. But you’ll catch on fast to the fact that the title is just a gimmick to frame a showcase around Ms. Ebersole’s range and versatility, with Mr. Stritch providing hip vocal harmonies and supportive piano chords that allow her to move gracefully through an indefinitely large number of moods and styles. (The sure timing of bassist Steve Doyle rounds out the trio.) She’s an actress front and center, polished enough to act out the subtexts of rhythmic centerpieces like the Cy Coleman–Dorothy Fields “Baby, Dream Your Dream,” and a singer with power enough to know her way around the high points of a showstopper like “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” For homespun hilarity, she pokes fun at her limply naïve, nonaggressive Unitarian background (“You know how to get rid of a Unitarian? Burn a question mark on his lawn”) and the odd rituals of growing up in Winnetka, Ill., naming a few celebs who shared her hometown roots and escaped, but curiously failing to mention Winnetka’s most famous export, a Swedish overachiever named Ann-Margret.

But time and again, it’s the singing that captivates. The duets with Mr. Stritch, whom she met when they both appeared in 42nd Street , are insouciant and full of lively musical ideas (“You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” has special oomph), and exploring a pleasing middle register she never uses onstage, she reveals an appealing (and surprising) jazz tempo on the flatted fifths and breakneck rhythms of a “Fine and Dandy” that really cooks. Ms. Ebersole has as many voices as other girls have shoes, and before this act is over, she uses them all. The knockout is “To Keep My Love Alive,” the homicidal aria by Rodgers and Hart with which she brought every sold-out audience to a standing ovation during the “Encores!” revival of A Connecticut Yankee . This tricky piece is a confessional, sung by a delightful serial killer from Camelot as she offs an army of husbands and lovers with an infinite variety of imaginative murder weapons. The song has a verse for every victim, and Ms. Ebersole sings them all from the same script folder she used in the “Encores!” production. (In keeping with a treasured theatrical concept, you know, but-smart girl that she is-also wise insurance against lyrics that backfire.) Passion, frolic, flair and lots of music by everyone from Irving Berlin to Antonio Carlos Jobim-you get it all at the Regency. By the end of this engaging hour with Christine Ebersole, you’ll agree with her charming signature finale: “It’s a Pity to Say Goodnight.”