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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: The Chosen (film)

The Chosen is one of those films that I can just imagine Annie from Darths and Droids sticking up for because of the "character development" and "themes" and "symbolism." In reality, however, it possesses these things in the most in-your-face, humorless, dullest way possible. It doesn't help that the one character, who, of all fictional characters out there, shares my first name, is minimally present and not called by name once. I don't even think it's the same character as the character in Chaim Potok's mediocre book. "Wait," you may ask, gentle reader, "this movie was based on a book? Shouldn't it be good then?" Despite the alarming statistic that a good deal of movies, particularly good movies, are adaptations, this is not one of those films. It is a movie, and it is based on a book, but is it good? No.

Originally released in 1981, The Chosen focuses on the friendship between two Jewish teenagers in 1940s Brooklyn, New York. We've got Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jew living with his widowed father (widowed in the book, anyway, but never explicitly mentioned in the film), and Danny Saunders, the son of the Hasidic Jewish leader Reb Saunders. After an accident involving a baseball to the face hospitalizing Reuven, Danny and Reuven bond through their mutual love of... studying? Contrary to what you'll find posted on Rotten Tomatoes (there, it says that Reuven and Danny bond over their "mutual love of stickball"; even the poster up there tries to sell it as that) this is not a sports movie. The baseball scene itself is prolonged and superfluous, not to mention weakly and unrealistically shot and choreographed. Nevertheless, after a much trimmed down hospital scene, Danny and Reuven become fast friends, introducing each other to their respective cultures. Where Danny takes Reuven to a Hasidic Synagogue meeting, Reuven takes Danny to the movies. I'd like to say that it's all very touching, but it's not. You know what it really is? Contrived.

This isn't really the story's fault, of course. We've got a couple of interesting characters in Reuven and Danny, who are both basically adapted word-for-word, line-for-line from the original book, which was published in 1967. The problem is that a.) They are portrayed mechanically and lifelessly by their actors (When Reuven says that Danny talks like he's from "outer space," that's the pot calling the kettle black.), and b.) There is almost zero dynamic between them. For goodness sake, Thor and Darcy have a better dynamic between them in Thor: The Dark World. I digress on the acting, which I'll grant was only moderate, but that's not to say that it deserves any praise at all. I'll admit that Rod Steiger really sells his performance as Reb Saunders, but it's not exactly how I envisioned him in the book. Reuven, played by some guy named Barry Miller, has the exact opposite problem. He looks exactly like the way he looks on the cover of the copy of the book that I read back in American Literature class, but he has all the personality of a statue. It's depressing, really.

This film is bizarrely reminiscent of a Shyamalan film, with everything from the way the cinematography is handled to the acting of varying quality to the generally bad directorial effort. The opening credits are distracting and lengthy, and there's a lot of unnecessary narration which brings us out of the story rather than enriching it. In addition, the film is unintentionally funny at several points, probably in the same manner as my buddy Nate found Man of Steel to be funny. That is to say, this film is filled with subtle absurdities which were obviously not intended to be so. For instance, when Reuven comes home in the morning from helping to smuggle guns to Israel, his father is at first irate at him. But as soon as Mr. Malter (played by Maximilian Schell, who only has so much to work with) is told by Reuven exactly what Reuven was doing, he brightens up and offers him tea. Mr. Malter, you are the worst father ever. Where it attempts to be humorous, it only succeeds in falling flat. There's also the dialogue, which is largely wooden and hollow, a flaw admittedly shared by the book, but which still remains here.

All of these flaws are compounded by the movie's cardinal sin: It. Is. Boring. Perhaps it would be better to say that all of these previously mentioned problems contribute to making it boring, but what really nails it is the fact that the movie moves at a very slow pace, despite being only 108 minutes long. From the baseball scene to the wedding party to the very end, the whole thing is paced as slowly as can be imagined. There's not a single iota of passion in this film, except maybe when Mr. Malter has a stroke and nearly dies, which is just depressing. Even the loud scenes where the extras sing just made me go, "When will this scene end?'

What is this film's one redeeming value? It stays relatively faithful to the book, that's what. I say "relatively faithful" for a reason: Many great scenes in the book were not depicted in the film, with the character of the one-eyed prizefighter who Reuven met in the hospital being reduced to a cameo appearance, and Danny, Reuven, and Reb Saunder's "Talmud battles" being cut entirely, among others. I guess I'm not really giving the film much, given that I didn't think the book particularly outstanding either. The point, however, is that the filmmakers were given a solid premise which was competently executed, and as a result we have yet another resoundingly average adaptation. Just was the world needs more of. I'd advise that you all just read the darned book (and possibly its sequel, The Promise) and check this film out as a mere curiosity if you're up to it. If you're not, I don't blame you.

RATING: 6/10

Image courtesy imdb.com