Director: Jeymes Samuel
Writer: Jeymes Samuel
Stars: LaKeith Stanfield, Anna Diop, RJ Cyler
Synopsis: Struggling to find a better life, Clarence is captivated by the power of the rising Messiah and soon risks everything to carve a path to a divine existence.
A comedic anachronistic film can be excellent. We all get a kick out of poking fun at the past or seeing a silly character wedge themselves into great historical events. It puts the past into a different perspective or makes us understand we shouldn’t take something from so long ago so seriously. If The Book of Clarence could figure out what it is and if it leaned harder into the comedy of its situation, it could have been a joy to watch. The film just never quite gets there.
It’s got a funny premise, a cast with some comedy bonafides, but it feels flat. Even with a strange scene of Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) and Elijah (RJ Cyler) floating through the air after getting high, the concept of how to visually portray an idea that isn’t a light bulb, or the strange and beautiful group dance scene at a party. Other than that, the whole film really takes itself seriously from the title cards that look like they come from a ’50s or ’60s biblical epic to the close ups of unfunny faces. Even the parts with clear jokes in them just don’t land. They sit in long takes. It’s hard to tell if it’s the product of Jeymes Samuel’s writing, directing, or the often overwrought music he produced for the film. It’s a confluence that doesn’t make for a cohesive vision.
It’s obvious that The Book of Clarence is borrowing and paying homage to other genres. From Shakespeare to biblical epics to Black struggle films like Boyz n the Hood or Dope, Samuel attempts to put them all together in order to say something, but his film doesn’t say anything. Especially in the third act, which nearly loses all attempts at humor for a maudlin ending that then tries to subvert itself at the very end. It’s probably easiest to blame Clarence himself, who has no personality.
He’s a hustler and an atheist. He loves his mother and despises his twin brother, the apostle Thomas, for walking out on them. Other than that, we know very little about him. He is whatever he needs to be at the moment he is in the film. In one scene he’s suddenly an extremely skilled fighter, taking on Barabbas (Omar Sy) in the gladiator arena, but in a scene several scenes later he’s running scared of local crime lord Jedediah’s (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) henchmen. Even his smooth talk is just monotone and flat.
Even though the film doesn’t hit in every aspect, it is visually interesting. Samuel and cinematographer Rob Hardy create some great sequences. The fight scene in the gladiator arena is striking, but the opening scene is even more engaging. The Book of Clarence begins with a chariot race through the streets of Jerusalem. Clarence and his right hand man Elijah in one chariot, Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), yes, that Mary Magdalene, in the other. They dodge merchants and pedestrians as well as street urchins trying to trip them up. It’s a lot of fun and exciting to boot. It also begins the incredible sub-subplot of the film. Without going into too much detail because it may affect the way the people see this third act surprise, but just to say, watch the beggar from the beginning of the race throughout the film, it’s a stroke of genius where his story ends up.
The Book of Clarence is going to be someone’s exact jam. They will love it from beginning to end. For the rest of us, it’s just kind of O.K. Unfortunately, Life of Brian it is not, so if you’re looking for that kind of a film, it’s best to avoid this one. The funny parts are few and far between and the message is lost somewhere around the half hour mark. The third act drags and has a near complete tonal shift, which it never really earns. It was a valiant effort toward a genre mashup that never finds the right balance.