`Noah's Ark' sinks like a stone

Preview: All wet biblically and full of holes, miniseries takes the viewer down with it. Here's praying this beast is the only one of its kind.

May 01, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I knew we were in trouble with "Noah's Ark" before the NBC miniseries from Robert Halmi even got properly started when a message appeared on the screen saying, "For dramatic effect, we have taken poetic license with some of the events of the mighty epic of Noah and the Flood."

Oh no, now Halmi thinks he can improve the Old Testament by punching it up with TV shtick. It wasn't bad enough when he turned Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" into "Columbo" last fall, now he's going to turn the Bible into his peculiar brand of glossy, big-name, mega-budget, prime-time mush.

"Dramatic effect" and "poetic license" are dangerous terms in the mouths of network producers. When you hear them in the same sentence during a hyped-up "sweeps" ratings month from a hot dog like Halmi, run for cover.

As for me, I had to watch. At moments like this, I feel like somebody in a 1940s' newsreel shown putting on sunglasses at a nuclear test site to watch an A-bomb explode about 50 yards away. Only I know the sunglasses aren't going to save me from the fallout of witnessing too many bombs like "Noah's Ark." My only hope is that science can use what's left of my nervous system and brain to study the effects of standing too close to the tube.

Jon Voight plays Noah. On paper, that is impressive. On screen, it is sad to see a great actor in such a crackpot role.

The crackpot factor arrives early, as soon as Noah starts talking to God, and God talks back.

An anthropomorphic, talking God is tricky enough in the wake of the late George Burns in "Dear God," Mel Brooks' "History of the World" films and Bill Cosby's brilliant Noah comedy routines. But Halmi decides to make his God sound like a bad Las Vegas comic.

When Noah questions the huge dimensions of the ark, for example, God replies, "I think big! I made the world in six days."

Noah again questions God when he indicates that he might wipe out all of creation with a second flood.

"You mean all of us? It doesn't seem fair," Noah says.

"I haven't decided yet, but it's an option. Don't call me; I'll call you," God says.

This is God speaking in the voice of a big-time Hollywood producer -- just like Halmi. Talk about ego.

Almost as bad as Noah chatting up God is Noah at home with the wife and kids.

Noah and the missus run a mom-and-pop dye operation -- Noah & Sons, Dyer of Silks & Wools," as the sign outside their home in Sodom says. The wife is played by Mary Steenburgen, who seems to be sleepwalking through her silly role of the oh-so-supportive wife of a guy who keeps leaving home for another mountaintop rendezvous with God.

Carol Kane, on the other hand, is not sleepwalking. She's so far over the top in her cartoon portrayal of Lot's wife that you wonder if the director and cast weren't smoking something illegal out there in Australia, where most of the filming was done. I like Carol Kane a lot, but she plays Lot's wife broader than she did Simka Gravas on "Taxi."

I am not kidding.

As for F. Murray Abraham, another great talent, he mainly seems lost as Lot. Or, maybe, he's just stunned by Kane's portrayal.

It's time for someone to say the emperor has no clothes when it comes to Halmi and his Hallmark productions. Or, at least, the clothes are not nearly as fine as they are purported to be. The Hallmark brand name certainly is not what it used to be, thanks to some of the bombs to which Halmi has attached it.

Yes, Halmi had a big success with "Gulliver's Travel," and he fooled a lot of folks with "Merlin." As for "Alice in Wonderland," while he fooled some critics (including me), I have yet to meet a parent of young children who didn't tell me that their kids either hated or were frightened by Halmi's "Alice."

The trick is that Halmi plays to our prejudices by taking celebrated texts from print culture and then doing them up with big stars, special effects and lots of money. The networks sell the miniseries as enlightened and elevated because of the books on which they are loosely based and the money spent in producing them.

But, like Charlie the tuna, we are confusing good taste with tastes good. Halmi isn't elevating television with his productions as much as he's debasing the books and our culture.

The Bible has been doing just fine without Halmi's help, thank you.

Isn't there anything positive to be said about the production, David? (No, that's not God speaking, just my editor.)

Yes, there is. I must commend NBC for scaling back the hype in connection with "Noah's Ark."

In February, the network told us "The Sixties," one of the most dreadful films of the decade, was the "film event of a generation." With "Noah's Ark," the claim is only that it's "the film event of the year."

Silly me, I was thinking "Star Wars."

`Noah's Ark'

When: Tomorrow and Monday night 9 to 11

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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