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Neither fish nor fowl, neither foul nor inspiring, director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky's strange and often rich new movie "Noah" has enough actual filmmaking to its name to deserve better handling than a plainly nervous Paramount Pictures has given it.
Aronofsky's a determined sort of fever dreamer, whose work so far includes "Black Swan" and "The Wrestler" in the popular success category, along with his earlier "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream." His latest, one of the nuttier Bible-related movies in the history of the medium, finds the filmmaker trying to cope with a heavy load of digital effects (flood; supernatural beams of light; giant rock-formation beasts that move, talk and provide nonunion, ark-building labor) and a heavier load of audience preconceptions.
Many in the prospective audience will resist what Aronofsky has done to Their Noah. This one, played with steely purpose by Russell Crowe, is a flawed, angry and murderously conflicted man just trying to do his job as he sees it: Listen to the Creator, prepare for the cleansing, annihilating flood, fulfill his mission and then live with the emotional consequences. In the Broadway musical "Two by Two" starring Danny Kaye, there's a song called "Poppa Knows Best." Poppa here, by contrast, threatens his own kin at knifepoint, thus risking the hostility of every woman, man, bird and animal on the vessel.
Here's why "Noah" actually works much of the time, even when it's just asking for parodists to have their way with such a potential folly. Aronofsky is interested in these people as people, not pop-up saints straight out of Sunday school. Although the director has a habit of letting the internal momentum of his dialogue scenes putter and then stall, his penchant for tight hand-held close-ups maintains a crude, heightened realism. Now and then, Aronofsky must pull back for more generic, digitally complex panoramas involving marauding armies or rock-formation "Watchers" (fallen angels, resembling a "Flintstones"-era version of "Transformers") doing their thing. There are two movies duking it out in "Noah," one close to the ground, the other up in the air, taking it all in. At its occasional best the film marries new technology with simple, striking visual notions, such as Noah's premonitions of the flood to come.
Jennifer Connelly emotes mightily, if rather demurely, as Noah's valiant wife (here named Naameh; she never made the cut in the Book of Genesis version of the story). Their three sons are portrayed by Logan Lerman (Ham); Douglas Booth (Shem, whose steady is played by Emma Watson); and young Leo Carroll (Japheth). Anthony Hopkins enjoys three or four scenes as Methuselah, Noah's grandfather, a man who has seen much and who at this point in his life simply wants a fistful of berries to munch on. (This bit is the closest "Noah" comes to comic relief.)
There's a roiling Cain/Abel dynamic between the older boys, and when Ham falls under the sway of Noah's sworn enemy, the latest in a relatively short line of bloodthirsty, godless men descended from the Cain, the movie finds its most affecting element. Ray Winstone's seething portrayal of the antagonist, and eventual ark stowaway, stays just this side of caricature, just as Crowe — say what you will, he's one of the only English-speaking actors alive who can plausibly anchor a Bible epic — finds the human being beneath the Job-like adversities.
A lot of this picture is dubious, starting with the rock-giants, the friendliest of which is voiced by Nick Nolte. (Honestly: Who else?) I came to "Noah" a Bible know-nothing, with zero concrete expectations. I must say, though, the animals get the shaft. They spend most of the movie sedated and sleeping in the bowels of the massive ark, which looks like a shipping barge made out of gopher wood, while the humans work through their problems. So be it. Aronofsky has said he didn't want to indulge in one of those cliched images of Noah, shot from a low angle, backed by two of this and two of that. The movie may be erratic, and its sillier, heavier passages recall its maker's nutso epic "The Fountain." Yet it's unpredictable, which is saying something, and it argues rather sweetly that if we had just listened to Noah, we'd all be vegetarians as well as more careful stewards of the only planet we've got.