Filmed as part of French TV's "2000 Seen By" program, which invited notable filmmakers to create movies set on the final day of the 20th century, The Book Of Life offers a contemporary look at the battle between good and evil as seen through the unmistakable lens of Hal Hartley. Hartley regular Martin Donovan stars as a distinctly fallible Jesus Christ, a brooding company man sent to Earth (alongside PJ Harvey as Mary Magdalene) to judge the righteous and the wicked with help from his father's attorneys. Henry Fool's Thomas Jay Ryan co-stars as the rumpled Prince Of Darkness, a pessimistic, supernatural con man intent on winning the soul of gambling-addicted atheist Dave Simonds and his saintly protector (Miho Nikaido) before the world comes to an end. The Book Of Life's plot and quirky cast might seem to promise a gleefully heretical comedy, but, like Kevin Smith's Dogma, it alternates between cheeky irreverence and brooding commentary on the nature of God and Man. Also like Smith's ambitious but overstuffed spiritual comedy, Hartley's film flirts with compelling theological issues before copping out with a blandly humanistic message, coming down squarely in favor of spirituality and goodness and firmly against judgmental religious dogma. Set in New York City, The Book Of Life seems to aim for the abstract, hyper-urban stylishness of Wong Kar-Wai, but cinematographer Jim Denault's use of digital video gives the film a muddy, unbecomingly washed-out look. As with every Hartley movie, moments of grace stand out—Ryan encountering Simonds for the first time, Harvey singing "To Sir With Love" in a record store—but The Book Of Life's transcendent peaks don't add up to a cohesive whole.
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