Sweet Baby Jesus
Author: Steve Blair
Writer’s Potential: 2
Logline:Christmas, 1969. When a pregnant hippie returns to her hometown of Bethlehem, MD, an innkeeper mistakes the baby for the second coming of Jesus.
Synopsis:At a state penitentiary, a man resembling Jesus Christ is led to an electric chair. His mother, MARY, and a man named ARTHUR watch, grief-stricken. In voiceover, Arthur says this isn’t the story of his death; it’s the story of his birth. Flashback to “33 years ago” (1969). A younger, pregnant Mary rides with JOE, a middle-aged hippie, into Bethlehem, Maryland. Mary goes to a beauty shop and surprises DARLENE, her mother. She’s thrilled to see her daughter and thrilled by the pregnancy — until she finds out Mary’s with Joe. Suddenly she’s livid. Mary locks herself in the bathroom, and while Darlene tries to console her through the door, Mary confesses that Joe isn’t the father of her baby and she doesn’t know who is.
Darlene throws everyone out of the beauty shop and closes up early. Joe helps Mary get into Darlene’s car while Darlene explains she has no room at her house, so she’s going to find out if there’s any room at the inn. While Darlene drives Mary, she admits that, while she doesn’t know the father, she did have a dream. We don’t hear it, but it freaks out Darlene. They go to the Carter House Inn, run by ELEANOR CARTER. Darlene drinks at the Carter House bar and explains her troubles to Eleanor, who is baffled but says she has no room. She considers fixing up an old tenant house near the inn that hasn’t been used in years. Eleanor checks out the rack of lamb she’s making for Christmas dinner but drops it when Joe startles her. She makes a “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” exclamation, and then it dawns on her — Joe, Mary, a dream, Christmas Eve… The innkeeper. She shows them into the tenant house, which is attached to a barn. Eleanor asks what Joe does for a living — he’s a carpenter. Suddenly, Mary starts having contractions. Eleanor grabs Darlene and DOC POLLARD, the town doctor. He says Mary’s experiencing a false labor and suggests that the baby won’t be born for another week, at least.
Mary starts calling newspapers, starting with the Baltimore Sun, where a much younger Arthur works. His editor, HAROLD, sends Arthur to Bethlehem to check out the story, because Arthur is young and Jewish, so he works Christmas. Eleanor gives Mary some tea and asks her what the angel said in her dream. Mary says it wasn’t an angel — it was Elvis Presley. This enrages Eleanor. Darlene arrives at the inn and finds a huge banquet set up. Eleanor says she talked to FATHER CLAYTON, the local priest, who spread the word about Mary’s condition.
Arthur shows up at a roadside diner looking for Bethlehem. A WAITRESS uses the example of two other men — SARATH, a Sri Lankan-American, and WALLY, an African-American — one of whom bought some food and got directions, the other of whom didn’t. He decides to eat, and she calls him a wise man. Turns out, Sarath is a reporter from Philadelphia and Wally is from the Washington Post. All three have been sent to check out Mary’s birth. Eleanor brings Mary some special “Corn Silk Tea” that advertises itself as inducing labor. Mary explains to Darlene what Eleanor said about her “Christ baby,” and Darlene laughs. Joe gets uptight about the Elvis dream and mentions that Mary was a big mess until she met Joe, who helped to turn her life around. He’s in it for the long haul, but she keeps reminding him the baby isn’t his. Mary says she’s afraid she won’t love the baby, but Joe’s afraid of the same thing.
Joe storms out and watches a girl dressed as an angel recite the dream to Joseph for the Christmas pageant. Joe hangs on every word. Darlene finds a Jell-O mold she brought in the trash, and it enrages her. She yells at Eleanor, then goes into the Christmas party swinging in the inn and leads them all to church. Joe, having cleared his head with a joint, returns to Mary just in time for her water to break. Joe freaks out and yells for help, but nobody comes. He delivers the baby himself. A couple of farmers bring some live sheep for the Christmas pageant when Angel Girl stops to tell them Mary’s just delivered her baby. They rush to the barn to help. Then, Angel Girl tells everyone in the church, waiting to watch the pageant, the same. The entire town gathers around. The owner of the “North Star Movie House” brings out a searchlight and turns it on.
The diner waitress points to the searchlight and tells the reporter that’s Bethlehem. They all drive to the barn in Bethlehem. They’re baffled by the live nativity scene before them. Eleanor tries to pull Darlene out of it, but she struggles to stay in. Arthur congratulates Mary. Suddenly, Darlene freaks out. She doesn’t want to accept this as a miracle, but Eleanor and the townspeople overrule her. The three reporters ask about Eleanor, since she placed the call, and when she sees Wally’s gold watch, it dawns on her that these are three wise men. Sarath chews on an odd Sri Lankan cinnamon that’s actually myrrh. They stare at Arthur with anticipation until he produces frankincense — a bag of marijuana.
The next morning, Joe rolls out of bed, tries to wake Mary. He gets up, buck naked, and walks out of the barn — where the entire town waits, watching. Back in Baltimore, Harold loves Arthur’s story and insists on sending Arthur back to follow up on the story. Arthur drives back, trying to read the Bible on the way. He, Wally, and Sarath all return at the exact same time. Arthur asks Mary how far she intends to go with “the whole Jesus thing.” Mary’s confused until Arthur explains that four million people have already seen the story, and by tomorrow another 100 million will have seen it, and so on. People will ask questions. At the Bethlehem Diner, Arthur considers that maybe this baby is the chosen one the Jews have been waiting for.
Father Clayton calls his BISHOP, who calls a CARDINAL, who contacts the POPE, who wants the baby investigated immediately. Meanwhile, Mary and Joe want to get out of town as quickly as possible, as more reporters and throngs of people show up. Suddenly, some townspeople threaten Mary, accusing her of being a whore, not a virgin. Darlene goes after them with a pitchfork. Father Clayton tells Eleanor that word has spread within the Catholic community quickly and that the Pope is sending an investigative committee. Eleanor is thrilled, until she finds Darlene warding everyone off with the pitchfork as they attempt to leave town. She tries to plead with Darlene. Father Clayton arrives and tells her about the papal investigation. Darlene is dubious, but she relents. Just after that, Arthur warns about the “King Herod” figure — that Mary and Joseph booked it out of Bethlehem because they thought the baby was in danger, that the three wise men were sent by King Herod to take the baby. Mary tells Joe she wants to name the baby Elvis. He’s taken aback. Arthur talks to Harold on the phone; he wants Arthur to keep reporting, even though Arthur dismisses them as victims of circumstance. Arthur refuses to report, and when Harold becomes verbally abusive, he quits. Joe begs Mary to leave, but she won’t.
FATHER ROSA, a priest whose face is obscured, arrives at the inn. Eleanor leads her to the baby, and we see it’s Harold. Mary tells him about the Elvis dream, and Harold flips out. He’s recorded her “confession” and threatens to take it to the papers. He tells Mary she should come with him so they can “work things out.” Meanwhile, FATHER CAMPANELLA, the actual papal envoy, shows up, confusing Father Clayton and Eleanor. Harold tries to steal the baby, but Arthur catches up with him. Arthur knocks him out and grabs the baby, telling everyone that Harold was “their Herod.” Darlene rages against Eleanor for putting the baby in danger and exploiting her daughter and grandson. To help, ROY, an old drunk, grabs a shotgun and blasts it, forcing everyone out of the inn. During a musical montage, Darlene sees Mary and Joe to their car; everyone chases gun-toting maniac Roy; Arthur takes Harold’s tape of Mary’s “confession”; Eleanor, crying, stumbles down the street as it begins to snow. She sees Angel Girl in a streetlight, then she disappears. Eleanor does a double-take, wondering if she really saw her; Arthur, Sarath, and Wally shake hands and split; and Mary and Joe disappear, never to be seen again.
In the present, Arthur explains in voiceover that he’s still at the Sun, eventually made the connection between this 33-year-old man — wrongly convicted and sentenced to death — and the incident in Bethlehem, which is why he goes to the execution. Arthur gives Mary the tape as they watch her son get zipped up in a body bag, and in voiceover, Arthur says he’s not sure if any of what happened is true, but he only needs to wait three more days to find out.
Comments:This toothless pseudo-satire uses one of two premises for every single joke in the script: it’s either “Gee, weren’t the ’60s kooky?” or “Gee, isn’t the Bible kooky?” Jokes about low gas prices and on-the-nose parallels to the story of Jesus’s birth are about as clever as this gets, which is disappointing because there are some comic possibilities with this premise. What we have here, however, couldn’t sustain a three-minute sketch, much less a 90-minute movie.
A story like this — grizzled ’60s hippies birthing the second coming — will court controversy, so if it’s going to be controversial anyway, why not make it interesting? The writer does not have any satirical aim, except for a few vague references to the exploitation of religious beliefs for financial gain. Wouldn’t it be infinitely more interesting if Eleanor — who is portrayed as little more than devout and opportunistic — were a fundamentalist who believes with every fiber of her being that this child is the second coming, but her main conflict is reconciling her belief with the fact that everybody in town thinks she’s a nutcase?
Everyone — including Mary and Joe — agrees too readily with Eleanor, eliminating any dramatic thrust or real conflict. The script just limps from scene to scene, with the story changing at random, almost as if the writer realizes nothing’s happening so he adds a new character or Biblical reference to stir things up for a few pages. The “Herod” crisis in the third act is barely a blip on the story’s radar, and it makes no sense, so why include it? Why wouldn’t Mary — who doesn’t want the attention — want Harold to leak the tape about her Elvis dream? It might paint her as nuts, but everyone would have a good laugh and stop caring. Similarly, the bookends with the 33-year-old Jesus figure don’t work at all; it provides a reason to set the story in 1969, but the writer does nothing with this setting other than make a few hippie and gas-price jokes.
Limp as the story is, the characters are so tied to their Bible-story counterparts that nobody gets any development. They’re just generic chesspieces. Nobody has any obstacles to overcome, which the writer tries to hide by keeping a frenzied pace and distracting us with the cinematic equivalent of shiny objects; unfortunately, these shiny objects come in the form of more characters who get no development, so the whole thing’s a wash. Why does Harold try to steal the baby? What does Arthur even have to do with anything, other than acting as a “Wise Man” and providing unnecessary narration? Why does Joe stop acting like a hippie after page 10, instead turning into a bland romantic lead? Darlene, who probably gets the most screen time and dialogue, doesn’t even have anything to do with the story, other than providing cheap conflict with Mary, Joe, and Eleanor. It’s disappointing since this story is rife with potential for characters — maybe Darlene’s suffering a crisis of faith and this turns her around (or vice-versa); maybe Joe and Mary have to struggle with accepting their supposed faiths; maybe Arthur’s an embittered, atheistic reporter who has a spiritual awakening. Any possibility for cleverness or defiance of expectations are dashed at very turn.
Finally, the story, which obsessively points out its Biblical references, repeatedly and in the most on-the-nose possible ways, doesn’t even get the details of the story it’s spoofing right. Joseph has the dream, not Mary, and the second coming is supposed to occur after the Rapture, the revelation of the anti-Christ, and an unfortunate period known as “Hell on Earth,” and it’s not said to mirror the original Jesus birth story. Somebody like Eleanor, or the various religious figures depicted, would be much more alarmed by this, perhaps speculating this is the anti-Christ rather than the second coming and wondering why they haven’t ascended to heaven; this, in itself, could generate still more conflict to drive this story — and be funny in a darkly satirical way.