Ruined in Rouen

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

Malkovich and Dunaway, both of whom have done period films before, blend into the milieu perfectly, though Malkovich's presence is slightly distracting, simply as a result of timing. The Messenger hits theaters a little too closely on the heels of Being John Malkovich, and here when he utters a line similar to one from the other film's tag lines -- "Sometimes I wish I could be someone else" -- it evokes a giggle.

This is nothing, however, to the outright belly laughs elicited by the movie's other bit of star casting. Shortly before the end, as Joan mopes in her cell and asks for a message from God, she is revisited by The Conscience, now, for whatever reason, portrayed as a middle-aged man. And at this moment The Messenger skids into Airplane! turf because The Conscience is played by ... Dustin Hoffman. Poor Joan is in the throes of a crisis of faith, and who does God send? A sixtyish, five-foot-four Jew with an American accent, all done up as if it's Halloween, and he's going trick-or-treating as Obi-Wan Kenobi, to boot. It's Ratso Rizzo in Rouen ... Rain Man in robes.

It's ludicrous, is what it is. It's not so much the Jewishness, though Hoffman's voice and intonations evoke memories of Mel Brooks' take on Joan of Arc. ("She used to say to me, 'I gotta save France.' I used to say, 'Look. I gotta wash up. You save France, and I'll see you later. After you save France, I'll wash up, ya know.' Her in her way, me in mine.") But Hoffman is so recognizably, distractingly himself and so irrevocably modern. Like Al Pacino in the 1985 Revolution, he doesn't time-travel well onscreen past about 1900. When Woody Allen went Napoleonic in Love and Death, this sort of temporal displacement was meant to be funny ... and it was. Here it's not meant to be, but it is nonetheless.

This appearance (little more than a cameo) destroys whatever claim on seriousness Besson and Jovovich have managed to establish. It's not clear that The Messenger would have worked. To contemporary eyes the literalness of cinema makes Joan's zealotry look more like insanity anyway. But the ludicrous casting of Hoffman is just the fatal bit of kindling on this Joan's fire.

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