To Hell With It

Oh God! directed by Carl Reiner at the Paris Cinema, Boylston St.

OH GOD! IS A BAFFLING MOVIE, and not because it raises any interesting theological issues. It would be safe to say that the Almighty has never appeared in a very good film, although considering the talent involved in this one--direction by the intermittently brilliant Carl Reiner and a script by the dependably slick Larry Gelbart--Oh God! should have been an irreverent romp. What emerges is an overlong television sketch, a limp, unimaginative, and boring monument to middle-class tolerance; in short, a popular favorite that could set comedy back as far as the Red Sea.

Carl Reiner's best films bear little resemblance to Oh God!. Where's Poppa?, for example, was pervaded by a manic hysteria, and peopled by feverish buffoons whose monomaniacal intensities constantly collided, resulting in sprawling calamities that were often exhaustingly funny. George Segal's wild-eyed sexual/homicidal obsessions (frustrated at every turn by his incessantly doddering mother, Ruth Gordon) produced scenes of comic genius, and in a lesser film, like The Comic, such moments successfully diverted attention from Reiner's maudlin tendencies in his quieter scenes. But in Oh God! the maudlin preponderates; Reiner chooses, for reasons of his own, to be "laid back," ignoring his real comic strengths.

Oh God! is the bland, slow-moving story of a mild-mannered assistant market manager (John Denver), who is visited by God (George Burns). God, troubled by all that nasty war and pollution, would like Denver to spread the Word that He wishes it would stop. Denver is understandably reluctant, but relates his story to the media and is declared a nut. The film climaxes, if one can call it that, in a courtroom scene, where Denver is on trial for slandering an odious religious crusader (Paul Sorvino). Shuffling to the rescue, God re-states His message to the court, does a card trick, and vanishes. No tape can record His voice, so only the court will know He was there for real. In the denouement, Burns assures Denver that even if one person in the court retains His message, the Word will spread and faith will be re-instilled in the people. As the music swells, Burns hobbles off into the park and vanishes.

THE MOST LOGICAL EXPLANATION for this inanity is that the movie is an act of homage to George Burns. Ever since the death of Jack Benny, Hollywood and its comedians have gone out of their way to worship Burns, his closest friend. By placing him as God in the center of a movie, Reiner may feel he is paying the ultimate tribute to this cigar-smoking, endearing little man. Too bad Reiner's religious offering did not include a good script. Great pains have obviously been taken to prevent the placid Burns from being upstaged; Reiner has chosen to cast him opposite John Denver, an innocuous, highly-forgettable country-western singer, and a company of lovable codgers from Barnard Hughes to Ralph Bellamy. Denver's wife, who must put up with his "visions," is played, badly, by Teri Garr, who went on to become the wife of a similarly-obsessed Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. She should have better taste in husbands, poor girl. Such an unthreatening, inoffensive cast must also have assured Reiner that although the idea of God presented as a stand-up comic would be offensive to some, most would smile anyway and have a good time.

Except that Oh God! isn't funny. At all.


MOST APPALLING IS the lack of invention. Reiner and Gelbart employ three basic jokes throughout the movie; one, the "God as a funny-rumpled-schlemiel joke," where He talks about the '69 Mets as the last great miracle after the Red Sea; two, the "he'll pop up anywhere" routine, in which Burns will drive by in a cab, control all the stations on a car radio, or appear suddenly in a supermarket aisle (this type of thing has been used from Topper to Bewitched, and was employed to greater comic effect by a steel-jawed villain in this summer's repulsive Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me); and three, the "desperation name-in-vain" pun (Denver: Whew! Thank God. Burns: You're welcome.).

Technically, Oh God! is an unholy mess, with soupy music and thoroughly insensitive editing (which, for example, totally destroys the performance of William Daniels as Denver's boss, an actor whose magnificent comic timing is chopped to pieces). Maybe Reiner and Gelbart could have wrung more humor from hell instead of heaven; Exorcist II: The Heretic was infinitely more amusing.

Reiner probably knows what a wet noodle movie he's directed, and in a cameo appearance in Oh God! (as a guest on the Dinah Shore Show where Denver's character is being interviewed about his encounter with God), Reiner is reduced to making a series of funny faces into the camera, a pitifully desperate attempt for laughs.

There may be some divine reason for seeing Oh God!; but certainly there's no reason on earth you should want to.

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