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By Merle Bertrand | September 20, 1999

This ain’t gonna help Millennium Fever one little bit. It’s December 31, 1999 and a reluctant Jesus Christ (Martin Donovan) has arrived in New York City to launch the Apocalypse as predicted in the Book of Revelations. A handsome yuppie in a business suit with a sexy leather-clad Mary Magdalena (P.J. Harvey) as his only assistant, it’s Jesus’ unpleasant task to unlock the Seven Seals, negotiate Satan’s prophesied demise with God’s feral attorneys from the firm Armageddon, Armageddon, Armageddon and Green and choose those souls to be saved from those doomed to eternal damnation. Talk about a busy day!
However, the gravelly-voiced Prince of Darkness (an excellent Thomas Jay Ryan), perfectly content with things the way they are, isn’t gonna go without a fight and he fights dirty! Bitterly cynical and with nothing to lose, Satan stumbles across Dave (Dave Simonds) and tricks the pathetic atheist and compulsive gambler into selling him his impossibly sweet girlfriend’s soul for a winning lottery ticket. This gives the slippery snake a bargaining chip to play when Jesus, having perhaps grown a bit too fond of us miserable humans after doing hard time as one himself a couple of thousand years ago, begins having second thoughts about the whole vindictive God thing. Satan may have been fired, but Jesus Christ might just quit.
If ever a film needs that silly, “Contains material which some may find offensive” warning, it’s this biting comedy from Hal Hartley. But I say, screw ’em if they can’t take a joke, because this darkly subversive little slice of anarchy, is easily the funniest film I’ve seen this year.
Shot on digital video and blown up to 35mm, “The Book of Life” makes Hartley one of the first established directors to use the emerging format for feature film work. Unfortunately, like any Joe Blow using a camcorder for the first time, he apparently became infatuated with the camera’s “strobe” function and unnervingly shot pretty much the entire film that way. While the resulting smeary image works on occasion – a cool way to present a familiar world on the brink of unprecedented disaster – sixty three minutes of this distracting and exhausting gimmick is just too much. A cheap digital effect is a cheap digital effect no matter whose movie it is.
That’s really about the only downside to this smugly humorous film, however. Full of smart and subtle sight gags and clever wordplay, “The Book of Life” is nothing less than a thinking person’s prep for the new millennium.

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