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  • Nate Adams

'The Book of Clarence' review: Biblical sendup doesn’t know who it's for

Courtesy of Sony


Trying to be both a satire and drama modeled after the good book, writer-director Jeymes Samuel’s “The Book of Clearance” ends up being a confusing odyssey that never understands who the audience is supposed to be. Samuel had moderate success with his last picture “The Harder They Fall,” a hyper-caffeinated western oozing with style, but occasionally lacked substance. Much of the same exists here as we follow a killer ensemble in what’s supposed to be a satire about religion, however, its end result is more akin to serious fare ala “The Passion of the Christ” rather than Monty Python. It leaves you wondering what the takeaway is supposed to be? Those who are devoutly religious aren’t likely to learn anything new and the pointed swipes it takes at the Bible (like the story of how Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus) don’t land. It’s almost as if Samuel’s is afraid of offending someone. 

Split into three “books:” “The “13th Apostle,” “The Messiah,” and “The Crucifixion,” we follow the exploits of Clarence (LaKeith Stanfeld), a street wise peddler who smokes weed and, when we meet him, has just lost a chariot race to Mary Magdalene (Teyana Tayloe) and is now indebted to local gangster Jedediah (Erick Kofi-Abrefa). He’s got 30 days to pay off his loan or he’ll be killed, but after getting stoned with his best-friend Elijah (RJ Cyler), he decides to become a Messiah (in another example of how imbalance the humor is, a literal light bulb appears over Clarence’s head as he devises this get rich quick scheme). 

Considering how easily people are fooled into believing anything they hear, and in an attempt to showcase the religious hypocrisy of which he does not believe, Clarence begins his quest to convince gullible citizens he is, in fact, a prophet of Jesus Christ himself. He gives impassioned speeches, and utilizes his squad (among them a former slave now turned sidekick named Barabbas, played by Omar Sly) to help peddle his so-called “miracles.” 

In these earlier sequences, Samuel, who also composed the film, gets plenty of mileage out of Clarence's brief interactions with various religious figures, David Oyelowo and Alfre Woodard make great use of their cameos playing John the Baptist and Virgin Mary, and he injects R&B classics into the soundtrack (the film sports Jay Z as a producer) to help liven the mood. But the movie starts to fall apart when it begins detouring from the satirical elements of the story and awkwardly gets stuck on an endless loop preaching the fundamentals of Christianity. 

It makes for a jarring shift as the movie seemed inclined on steering the comedy route, but the final moments, which depicts a fairly brutal crucifixion at the hands of James McAvoy’s cruel Pontius Pilate, tells a different tale. Then, as the dust is beginning to settle, one character, nailed to a cross I might add, attempts a joke that lands with a resounding thud. By the end, this stellar cast, rounded out by Anna Diop, Michael Ward, Caleb McLaughlin and Benedict Cumberbatch, can’t seem to strike the correct balance. It would seem Samuel, who deserves credit for taking a rather ambitious swing on the big screen, may have overplayed his hand, sentencing “The Book of Clearance” into cinematic purgatory. 

Grade: C

THE BOOK OF CLARENCE is now playing in theaters. 

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