Although it's cursed with the sorriest title since "Oh, God!" the new biblical spoof "Wholly Moses!" has one small point in its favor" "Monty Python's Life of Brian" was worse.
Would that higher praise were justified. The basic idea of lampooning Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" isn't unappealing, heaven knows.
The first feature credit for both screenwriter Guy Thomas, a mere 24, and director Gary Weis -- a decade or so older but already valued for film segments on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Ruttles" with Eric Idle -- "Wholly Moses!" begins Brighly and has its moments. Unfortunately, it keeps degenerating into a satiric pillar of salt before your disappointed eyes. k"The Ten Commandments," the acknowledged apotheosis of square bibilical spectacle, eludes the grasp of Weis and Thomas.
Such tempting, apparently foolproof targets may mislead avid humorists as severely as the left-field wall at Fenway Park has been known to mislead right-handed power hitters. You can make fun of these movies, but the parodies seldom prove more satisfying, even as a source of hilarity, than the prototypes. (The upcoming spoof "Airplane" sounds promising, but it's difficult to believe that it could be absolutely funnier than "airport '75" or "The Concorde -- Airport '79" in the raw.)
"Wholly Moses!" isn't about Moses. Like "Life of Brian," it invents a deluded, hard-luck rival who imagines himself blessed while merely walking in the footsteps of a pace-setting religious leader. In this case, the bibilical chump is called Herschel, a contemporary of Moses whose pathetic chronicle is discovered in a cave in the Negev by a pair of tourists, portrayed by Dudley Moore and Laraine Newman. They find the manuscript soon after meeting on a bus during what their gushy guide (delightfully played by Charles Thomas Murphy) calls "a no-frills tour of the Holy Land."
Weis and Thomas seem more confident with the romantic comedy tone of this framing, sequence than the subsequent biblical costume spoof. It begins after Moore, supposedly a language scholar, unrolls the scroll containing the Book of Herschel and the images waver into a burlesque antiquity. The movie opens with a wittily misleading panoramic shot and a good sight gag that suggest the passengers, Moore in particular, may have something to fear from their hostile driver, Mohammed.
The initial conversation between Moore and Newman promises the best tart interplay since Woody Allen and Diane Keaton became a team. "I'm Zoe, from Los Angeles," she announces pleasantly. He shakes her hand but neglects to mention his own name (Harvey), then launches into a fuming digression: L.A. huh? My last girlfriend was from L.A. She put me through hell . . ."
After suffering his rude egotism in silence, Newman gets even moments later when Moore remarks that he always takes vacations after an affair breaks up. "You must have been around the world several times," she quips, and this equalizer stops his self-pity cold and brings him to his senses.
When Newman and Moore reappear in the Old-Testament setting, they don't sustain this initial rapport. The first sequence that dies on the screen finds Newman playing a girl named Zeralda. She enters the idol-making shop of Moore's Herschel to browse around. The scene plays so awkwardly that you can almost feel the picture deflate. It displays a few comic sputters later on, once during an amusing wedding night situation that forces newlyweds Herschel and Zeralda to bed down on a steep hillside, but the continuity never recovers enough buoyancy to keep bouncing for two episodes (or gags) in succession.
Weis reveals a flair for droll, deadpan composition that might be more effective with tighter, denser comedy material. His visual looseness doesn't complement a script with the excess slack of "Wholly Moses!" Still, there's an appealing kind of invention evident in a sight like the two miniature arks drifting down the Nile: one bearing Moses, destined to be found by the Pharaoh's daughter; and the other bearing Herschel, destined to overshoot the same target. One detects a similar whimsy in the spacious gag of Moore and Dom DeLuise, two preoccupied, solitary travelers in the desert, entering from opposite sides of the frame to bump into each other in the center.
Thomas is capable of silly inspirations, like the 11-breasted idol Herschel is discovered sculpting in his shop or Newman's bleating on her wedding night (after being advised by her married sister that a bride "shall do what the sheep in the fields do"). Sustaining a comic plot about the poor man's Moses obviously defied Thomas' powers of invention. His script constantly loses momentum and stumbles around seeking fresh sources of humor from sidetrips into Joseph, David and Goliath, Lot in Sodom. All to no avial.
The role of Hrschel, a cowardly boaster, seems to call for a new Bob Hope. None being available, Moore does his amiable best, which is never forceful or distinctive enough to get a grip on the show.
Newman's talents remain largely untapped, and several familiar performers -- DeLuise, John Ritter, John Houseman, Paul Sand, Madeline Kahn, Richard Pryor -- make fleeting appearances that seem momentarily hopeful but fail to salvage a fundamentally miscellaneous, scatterbrained scenario. James Coco comes closest to sustaining a humorous characterization in the role of Herschel's doting dad, Hebrew slave.
Houseman looks irresistibly funny when he turns up in angelic drag, white wings flapping and stern countenance scowling over a big, ridiculous golden bow tie. That costume is a real triumph. It's a pity so many of the props tend to outclass the property they're designed to enhance.