Wholly Moses!

Wholly Moses! Columbia Pictures 1980.

Before watching the movie:

This movie sounds very similar to Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. The major difference, aside from being about a Moses parallel instead of a Jesus parallel, seems to be that Herschel has been deluded into believing he is God’s prophet while Brian spends the whole movie begging the crowds to stop trying to make him their messiah. Apparently it was also protested by Jewish groups for mocking their religion. I didn’t find Life of Brian as blasphemous as everyone said, so I’ll reserve judgment here.

After watching the movie:

Holy Land tourists Harvey and Zoey discover a scroll detailing the life of Herschel. When Herschel was a baby, his father Hyssop had the idea of putting him in a basket and floating him to Pharaoh’s daughter’s bathing area to save him from the slaughter of the Hebrew babies, but another baby whose parents had a similar idea got there first. Herschel was instead adopted by an idol maker, and grows up in the family business, with Hyssop beside him as the household slave. Through misadventures, Herschel finds himself drafted into becoming the Pharaoh’s astrologer, then becomes a shepherd and married to Jethro’s other daughter Zerelda, always having to go round up his brother in law’s sheep. One day, Herschel climbs the mountain and hears the voice of The One True God saying to go tell Pharaoh to Let My People Go, but what Herschel doesn’t realize is that around the other side of the boulder, God is actually speaking to Moses.

Maybe the act of creating a new and separate character through which to parody the established stories and run contemporarily to but distinct from the figure that stars in them is unique to religious figures, an attempt to get around “you’re mocking my religious icon” outrage. It does not seem to have been successful for this or for Life of Brian, but it works for me. Herschel doesn’t have a very good opinion of Moses, but Herschel is also deeply self-centered, and the one possibly legitimate criticism he has is that Moses isn’t a very good shepherd, which isn’t that relevant to his place as a religious figure.

The structure is very episodic, picking parts of the Moses story, and throwing in other Biblical anecdotes for filler, and stringing together what’s almost sketches into a rough narrative. There are long stretches where the story feels like it got off on a tangent, but some of those times are just very loosely paralleling Moses’s story. This was promoted as the story of a guy who thinks God told him to do what God told Moses to do, but at least half of the movie is getting to that point. By the time Herschel reaches Pharaoh with the message (thanks to a tangent mashing up David and Goliath with Sodom and Gomorrah), Moses and the Israelites are gone.

There are a ridiculous number of comedy greats from the late 70s/early 80s here, but hardly any of them are used to great effect. The best ones have one-off cameos where they’re probably bringing a lot of improvisation to the script, particularly Madeline Kahn, John Ritter, and Richard Pryor. Others wouldn’t be remarkable in their scenes if they weren’t recognizable faces.

If one were to go into this expecting a meandering, nearly sketch-based plot, it would probably be more enjoyable than I found it to be. A lot of the story strays very far away from direct parody of Moses, and the first poster I saw put Richard Pryor out front when he only has one scene because Pharaoh’s one purpose in the story is to tell Herschel the Israelites are already gone. The part I was expecting the movie to cover is entirely denouement, and misrepresentation easily leads to boredom and disappointment.

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