- Movie Rating -

Wholly Moses! (1980)

| June 13, 1980

Wholly Moses! Is a comedy that illustrates the key problem with trying to satirize the Bible, and that is that the Bible isn’t funny in and of itself.  Yes, the characters that inhabit its pages are weird and bizarre and some fall just this side of comic book superheroes but the problem is that there isn’t really anything that you can poke fun of that the Bible didn’t do first. 

That’s the problem here.  Wholly Moses! forsakes real satire in favor of a series of shopworn TV-style sketches that written based on the theory that half-written, lazy material can be leavened by having it delivered by famous comedians who have been funny before.  That is a tragic miscalculation.

The story is really two stories, the first a modern tale about a Harvey (played by Dudley Moore), a history professor who is taking a dime-tour of the holy land who ends up in a cave and runs across a scroll that tells the second story, that of a forgotten biblical figure named Herschel (Moore, again) who’s life parallels that of Moses.  They were both set adrift on the Nile almost at the same time – even though Herschel was a little further upstream so while Moses led a life of great destiny, Herschel led a life of little consequence – which is fitting because this is a movie of little consequence.  And if the plot sounds blisteringly similar to Life of Brian, you’re not off track.  Both are about a gentle nincompoop whose life just happens to run parallel to a towering Biblical figure.

The difference is that Life of Brian was about the world that Jesus inhabited and took issue with the ways in which people build religious cultism.  Wholly Moses! takes a much lazier approach by simply having funny actors play Biblical characters using modern speak and expecting it to be funny.  It is the sketch approach and it isn’t funny all by itself.

Example: At one point Herschel meets The Devil (John Ritter) who is sitting on a rock after Sodom and Gomorrah has been destroyed and waiting to greet the damned as they come running out.  This is not really funny even as a basic set-up but even worse is the predictable way in which he approaches it: “Everyone in that city was damned already, I’m just waiting to pick them up.”  Not funny.  It might have been funnier if, perhaps, the perversions taking place within S&G were so shocking that The Devil himself were shocked.  That would have been an idea, but Ritter’s Devil is so laid-back about the whole thing that we are already way ahead of the joke.

Another involves Madeline Kahn as an aphrodisiac peddler who gives Herschel a lift on her cart.  He samples her wares, he becomes amorous, she pushes him off of her cart.  Big deal.  Obvious joke.  We aren’t laughing because we’re already five minutes ahead of the punchline.

Really, I sat stone-faced through Wholly Moses! hoping that one of its celebrity guests – Madeline Kahn, John Houseman, Richard Pryor, Jack Gilford, James Coco, Dom DeLuise, David Lander, Paul Sand, Richard Shull – would find some way to leaven this dead material.  It was not to be.  Once a sketch-show always a sketch show.  How does one deal with a gag about a store that sells graven images called “Choke Full of gods.”  Oy!

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized