Friday, May 18, 2012

Oh, God! (1977)

          Gently satirizing the commercialization of religion and the changing role in everyday American life of traditional spirituality, Oh, God! became an unexpected hit during its original release. However, the movie plays like a time capsule today. In addition to exuding such sweetness that it seems hopelessly naïve by modern standards, the picture ends where a 21st-century take on the same material would begin. Yet because Oh, God! was made in an era when less was more, much of the film’s charm stems from the fact that it concludes before the central contrivance wears out its welcome.
          When we first meet Jerry Landers (John Denver), he’s a soft-spoken everyman working as an assistant manager in a grocery store and building a quiet life with his wife, Bobbie (Teri Garr), and their son. Jerry starts receiving mysterious invitations to meet with God, which he figures are gags. But then, one morning, God appears in Jerry’s home. Taking the unlikely form of a short 80-year-old in thick eyeglasses, a ball cap, and a windbreaker, he seems a lot more like an escapee from a senior home than an all-powerful deity, but after several meetings—and after the performance of tiny miracles like starting a rainstorm inside Jerry’s car—God makes a believer out of Jerry.
          Thereafter, He explains that Jerry has been chosen to be a modern-day Moses, spreading the word about God’s existence and reminding people about their responsibility to treat each other well. In addition to making Bobbie worry that her husband has lost his mind, Jerry’s claims of a divine mission put him in the crosshairs of skeptical religious scholars and of charlatans like Reverend Willie Williams (Paul Sorvino), a showboating evangelist whom Jerry calls out as a fake. The whole affair climaxes in an understated courtroom scene, during which Jerry challenges his critics with an appealing mixture of common sense and faith.
          As written by ace satirist Larry Gelbart, from a novel by Avery Corman, and as directed by light-comedy veteran Carl Reiner, Oh, God! is less about the tenets of Christianity and more about the role of decency in 20th-century society. As such, casting wholesome singer-songwriter Denver in the leading role was clever (even if fans later learned he wasn’t actually so wholesome). With his childish bowl-cut hairstyle and kind eyes, Denver seems like a personification of guilelessness. Conversely, Burns’ casting as God was effective on many levels. Funny, knowing, and sly, Burns comes across like the grandfather everyone would like to have, so it isn’t much of a leap to accept him as the Father everyone might like to have.
          Thanks to its enjoyable acting, gentle comedy, and humane themes, Oh, God! is an endearing flight of fancy for those willing to meet the movie on its own terms. The picture did well enough to inspire two sequels, Oh, God! Book II (1980) and Oh, God! You Devil (1984), but neither is worth much attention even though Burns reprised his title role for both movies.


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