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Abraham!: Mel Brooks Knows the Bible in the Biblical Sense

Director: Mel Brooks; Cast: Larry David as Abraham, Adam Sandler as Lot, Jennifer Lawrence as Sarah, Mila Kunis as Hagar, Louis CK as Isaac, and Sacha Baron Cohen as Pharaoh/King Abimelech.

With this year’s releases of the perfunctory Son of God, Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre yet tepid Noah, and Ridley Scott’s upcoming Exodus, the last thing anybody asked for was another biblical biopic. But then we heard Mel Brooks was coming out of retirement to direct what he has announced as his final film, Abraham!, a long-planned gonzo-daptation of the life of Abraham, that “father of multitudes” of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In the midst of all these goddamned serious religious epics, we were drooling over the parodist’s take on the cradle of civilization, whether to adore it or to asperse it. We all played little movies of possibilities in our heads in the months leading up to the premiere. Brooks devotees gathered marble for monuments, and the Westboro Baptist Church ejaculated pure hatred in its own pants. If the movie were half as good as the hype, the beloved director of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles would have given us the edgiest religious satire since Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Now it’s here…

And it’s funnier than Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

But is it the swan song we hoped for? Given the material, the satirical possibilities were endless, and Brooks hits most of the obvious ones: ritual absurdities, sexist hypocrisy, and the horrors of slavery. Sandler, who is effective overall, shines in a very funny scene about circumcision. Kunis and Lawrence are simply perfect as the smarter-than-the-boys schemers, although the idea of thousands of years of sexual oppression being self-imposed and the result of a deep, sophisticated conspiracy to avoid manual labor is more than a little offensive. But if that isn’t enough to rile the sensitive, then a large ensemble of slaves singing the cheerful show tune called “Strictly Business” ought to do it. Nor does Brooks waste the opportunity to make a jibe at the Biblical narrative itself. Sacha Baron Cohen pulls double duty as both Pharaoh and King Abimelech due to the congruence of their respective stories in Genesis. Where Brooks deviates from the good book is the power of Sarah in these interactions, and Lawrence is masterfully funny in her subtle manipulations of Cohen and David—both times.

More disappointing is the role of Isaac, played by Louis CK. The whole cast seemed to be chosen for each actor’s ability to be her/himself, and nothing held more promise than what the banter should have been between Larry David and Louis CK during the film’s climax, the famous Akedah, or “Binding of Isaac.” Other than the recurring sight gag (David in trademark glasses, CK with trademark goatee), the precious minutes leading up to the sacrifice wasn’t funny at all. It was dramatic, or an attempt at drama by two inept actors. Did Brooks chicken out? Was skewering this old sacrifice story just too controversial? Hell no. The old man had other plans, plans for putting knife-raised David, tied-up CK, and the rest of us out of our misery with a ham-fisted punch line.

“Cut!”

Mel Brooks himself appears, the cameras and various crew come into view, and the actors immediately break character. Then the film just unravels in a self-referential mess. Little squabbles between actors, crew members, a cell phone argument with the producer… the whole thing feels like a rip-off. I mean, I get it, you know? Brooks’s director is obviously “God,” and the scene alludes to the somewhat credential mathematical/scientific theory of our universe being a hologram. It’s a nifty ploy, one that had the audience rolling in theater where I saw it, but the idea behind this move offended me terribly, more so than any of the film’s previous flirtations with the edge of taste. The final fifteen minutes of Abraham! acts as a complete foil to its previous themes. What had been a provocative satire about humanity and its speciously founded institutions dissolves into meaninglessness, and this is what kills me about the eighty-eight-year-old’s last film. It plants a moral aftertaste more pungent by far than any of the other “serious” epics; Abraham! ultimately proselytizes on nihilism, but comedy can’t proselytize on anything. It’s just not fucking funny.

But I’ll watch it again, and I suspect so will everyone else for a long time to come. While I can’t rank his last film with the likes of The Producers or even the oft overlooked Robin Hood: Men in Tights, there is no question that Mr. Brooks has left a gutsy last will and testament, a stout monument in the shape of a middle finger. He would have done a greater service not only to the viewer but also the subject material if he kept the whole thing closer to the earth—more human, more real. Brooks fell prey to his own bullshit religion, and he tried to teach us something in the wrong venue. Moreover, the nihilist argument is weak. Individual beliefs notwithstanding, the point of religion has been to collectivize people under a consistent set of social mores, and despite the negative passion inspired by violent isolated incidents, the fictive devices of religion (along with empire-building and more recently the capitalist creed) have ultimately succeeded in promoting welfare at its most general. Brooks swims against this inevitable stream of human history and attempts to place us each individually in the only state of being that is simply impossible: alone. The end of Abraham! is an unpalatably dark coda to this smiling man’s long, sunny career.

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.