Thursday, 21 April 2011

EasteRH: "Wholly Moses!" (1980)

The life and times of Herschel, a contemporary of Moses, and who was in fact the real mover and shaker of the Exodus - the Maurice Gibb to Moses’ barnstorming Barry; the Radar to his Hawkeye; the Starscream to his Optimus Prime...

“Wholly Moses!” (1980, Gary Weis)

Starring: Dudley Moore, Laraine Newman, Dom Deluise, John Ritter,  John Houseman, Richard Pryor, Madeline Kahn, Ion Teodorescu

Tagline: ‘The story of Herschel. He wanted to be Moses… but he didn’t have the right connections.’

Trailers: The Tacoma Narrows, Population: 000, The Trials of Dickie Gregory
Cherrypick: “Moses put some heavy action on our ass: Split the Red Sea in half, man! I mean ‘Zip!’ - down the middle, cover quick, an’ no excuses!”

With a production schedule that would appear to have been cynically engineered to anticipate the problems that Monty Python’s Life of Brian would inevitably encounter with censors and high-handed, publicity-starved city councilors the world over, this speculative, below-radar effort shows every sign of being conceived, shot and shepherded to the big-screen while Brian’s arrival was being duly held up by banner-waving New York nuns, picketing Reno Rabbis and the white-eyed glossolalia of the wazoos of Wichita Falls.
Beware of false posters...
Whisking us through the Holy Land with all the jabbering haste of a camel past a kebab shop, WM! eventually comes to settle on the trials of a schmo named Herschel, who is to Moses what Brian would eventually prove to be to Jesus. Now, Christ was, there can surely be little doubt, a top man, but it is in the main his teachings rather than adventures of his life that many of us remember (apart from that nasty bit of business at the end). Five-thousand fishes, ‘Take up thy bed’ and the odd mounted sermon are all very well and good, but in Moses we have a mensch with a real grasp of spectacle; a proselytizing PT Barnum whose sketchy map-reading skills were more than made up for by his preternatural understanding of set-piece bombast; a canny facilitator who would deliver unto the Promised Land of Hollywood such show-stopping eye-candy as Plagues, Brimstone, the Parting of Seas… 

Well, not on this budget he wouldn’t.

In this rendering of ‘The (Second) Greatest Story Never Told’ we have to make do with Amiable John Ritter in a comely red satin devil get-up complete with wonky plastic Walmart pitchfork and Richard Pryor as His Regal Funkiness, The Pharaoh, declaiming and proclaiming from atop a throne that is quite clearly a dining chair on a table with a big sheet thrown over them both. We do get the Burning Bush, but even that minor scrub fire takes place just around the corner, and when the Destruction of Sodom is ported in from the Book of Genesis, it is not only less infernal than a bunch of glue-sniffing tweenies burning a damp mattress, but purely as an excuse for a volley of lame back-door gags.
Kahnned laughter
But we get ahead of ourselves. The film actually begins in the modern day with holidaying languages professor Dudley Moore rumbling around the Middle East (Utah) on a bus tour of religious sites. Nebbishly clad in the only outfit he wore throughout a movie career which spanned more than twenty years – an ill-fitting grey three-piece and ratty tie combo that was willed to, and burnt by, the Smithsonian after his death – it is obvious from the off that Dagenham Dud, probably sloshed on duty-free Baileys, managed to join the wrong queue at the airport: Originally, it transpires, booked on a two-week sex-trek through the Benelux Countries, the horny dwarf instead finds himself sweltering in the desert heat and singularly failing to get his end away with the only white woman on the bus.
"I mean ‘Zip!’ - down the middle, cover quick, an’ no excuses!”
Cooling both his brow and his riotous male urges in a roadside cave during a rest-stop, Dudley stumbles across a much-needed plot device in the form of some long lost Biblical scrolls that purport to tell the gospel truth about the life and times of Herschel, a contemporary of Moses, and who was in fact the real mover and shaker of the Exodus - the Maurice Gibb to Moses’ barnstorming Barry; the Radar to his Hawkeye; the Starscream to his Optimus Prime. Cue the screen going all wibbly as we are mercilessly transported to the reed-lined banks of the Nile in time to see Herschel’s bulrush baby-barge nudged off-course by Sweet Baby Moses. Narrowly thereby denied the Princedom of Egypt, our boy is instead salvaged by – and you’ll like this - the wife of Pharaoh’s chief idol-maker.

We next encounter Hersh in his adopted father’s workshop, where he’s busy seeing out the apprenticeship that has taken him well into early middle-age by knocking out three-breasted Nubian fertility statues and prototype gnomes to the carriage trade of Egyptian society. Eventually banished for reasons that we missed out on due to a liquor run, Herschel is at last set free to wander around the place bumping into every single third-banana of late-seventies American comedy as his path repeatedly criss-crosses with that of Moses and we are left to drunkenly ponder what Peter Cook would make of all this.
'We are miserable sinners..'
Dunderpated, bothersome and with an LPM (laugh per minute) count lost somewhere on the barren plains between Shoah and Showgirls, Wholly Moses! is like being consigned to forty years wandering the desert with only the New Jerusalem of the end credits as reward; a Canaan which after about an hour is so remote and ineffable to those jejune and sandblasted souls of us who have struggled so far; so impossibly distant for limbs now sagging like the grotesque extrusions of cruelly buckled dollies, that, though we have been to the mountaintop and glimpsed the fertile valleys of Abraham’s heaving Bosom, that we might not get there with you…

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