Streetwise and down-on-his-luck, but not totally down; “THE BOOK OF CLARENCE” | FILM REVIEW

2021’s Western “The Harder They Fall” was writer/musician/filmmaker Jeymes Samuel’s feature-length directing debut and an intoxicating film full of energy and ideas. For the most part, the same can be said of his latest, “The Book of Clarence.” While the film is clever and holds one’s interest, it suffers from a cinematic Multiple Personality Disorder, as its later half finds jarringly abrupt tonal changes that blunt its impact.

Samuel’s film is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As Samuel draws his audience in with his wild comedic style, he then tricks them into experiencing what ultimately becomes a heavy-handed, faith-based movie. There is certainly a place for the type of film that plays to the spiritual mindset, but “The Book of Clarence” can’t find balance in serving two masters.

Those seeking a bizarre comedy about a fake messiah (as the ads tout it to be) may revolt after the second half’s shift into deadly serious sermonizing. In turn, Christian filmgoers might be put off, as the first half is front-loaded with drug humor and raw (sometimes vulgar) comedy. This is not to say Jeymes Samuel has made a bad film. He most certainly has not. Almost all of the comedy works, and there is a lot to admire, but the uneven tone hampers the finished product.

Monty Python beat Samuel to the punch with their 1979 classic “Life of Brian,” a film brazenly comedic and quite controversial. While never poking fun at Jesus (nor God), The Pythons took on the dangers of blind faith in their patented style, which caused many Christians to take offense, mistaking the film as making light of religion. With his sophomore effort, Jeymes Samuel (who wrote the script) pays homage to that film but seems skittish in going too far. The screenplay seems to go right to the comedic edge, then pulls itself back in the hopes of sidestepping controversy.

Set in Jerusalem, 33 A.D., an excellent and effortlessly charming LaKeith Stanfield is “Clarence,” a weed-dealing hustler/dreamer with zero faith, a full-on atheist whose twin brother Thomas (also Stanfield) happens to be one of the twelve Apostles. As the film opens, Clarence and his best friend Elijah (R.J. Cyler) are in a chariot race, hoping to win enough money to pay back Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa). The two are racing against “Mary Magdalene” (Teyana Taylor), a silly plot point, but it works. This sequence is a full-on homage to William Wyler’s “Ben Hur.” A later scene of gladiator training references Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus,” as the director cites both films as personal favorites.

Clarence is in love with Jedidiah’s sister Varinia (Anna Diop) but cannot woo the young woman while her brother wants to kill him over his debt. Looking for a way out, Clarence goes to the Apostles, asking to be lucky 13. This is met with contempt, so he seeks to be baptized. David Oyelowo (in a hilarious cameo) is John the Baptist, who cannot tolerate the blasphemous Clarence. He relents if only to make the young man go away, resulting in one of the film’s funniest scenes.

Judas Iscariot (Micheal Ward) challenges Clarence to free slaves, and he does so, freeing only one, “Barabbas the Immortal,” played by a great Omar Sy. As Clarence sets out on his journey with Elijah, Barabbas, and friend Zeke (Caleb McLaughlin), he gets the idea to become the new messiah, complete with fake miracles, as he is not a believer. Doing it all for the money, Clarence finds quick wealth but begins to look inward toward a more enlightened path.

Director Samuel is a disciple of Old Hollywood biblical epics. Filming in Italy, the filmmaker gives authenticity to the setting thanks to strong work from production designer Peter Walpole and cinematographer Rob Hardy. It is against this realistic terrain that the screenplay injects some funny and very clever moments. Clarence and company hit a “nightclub,” and in a fun sequence, everyone dances in unison to the sounds of The Jones Girls’ 1981 song, “Nights Over Egypt.” Another inventive sequence finds Clarence and Elijah in a hookah café where everyone is (literally) floating from their weed high.

For most of its running time, “The Book of Clarence” is interesting and fun. It is in the final act (“Book III”) where Samuel veers off course, offering up his lead character as a parable while dropping a deadly serious weight onto the film. Such a heavy dramatic shift fails because Samuel’s script failed to build the foundation that would prepare the audience for such a wide tonal swing. After the airy and comedic first half, the bible school lesson finale on redemption and faith does not play. The overkill of songs with a spiritual edge (composed and performed by the director) that seem to play every second during “Book III” do nothing to help.

Uneven as his film becomes, Jeymes Samuel possesses a fresh and distinctive cinematic voice, and this film has a lot going for it. LaKieth Stanfield is a born talent, and Clarence is one of his finest hours. When the film takes its uneven turn, Stanfield finds real heartfelt emotion, even as the screenplay stumbles.

The supporting cast is great. David Oyelowo, Babs Olusanmokun, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alfre Woodard have standout moments, while Nicholas Pinnock (as Jesus) respectfully balances seriousness with a scene or two of slight humor.

In the masterstroke, a certain character is a representation of how mainstream Christianity has sanitized the look of Jesus Christ and those who existed during his time. The reveal is rather brilliant, and, in this respect, Samuel’s sharp point hits its mark.

While tonally-imperfect, Jeymes Samuel’s “The Book of Clarence” is still a good experience. The film has some big laughs and (heavy-handed as it is presented) a resonant message. There is enough for the devout and the non-believer to experience, even if Samuel’s intent isn’t accomplished fully.