GOD COM­EDY NEVER TAKES HIM IN VAIN

Chicago Sun-Times - - WEEKEND PLUS -

FROM THE EBERT ARCHIVE

‘OH, GOD!’ ★★★½

Orig­i­nally re­viewed Oct. 12, 1977 Of the films di­rected by com­edy great Carl Reiner, who died Mon­day, this was one of Roger Ebert’s fa­vorites.

Carl Reiner’s “Oh, God!” is a trea­sure of a movie: A sly, civ­i­lized, qui­etly funny spec­u­la­tion on what might hap­pen if God en­deav­ored to present him­self in the flesh yet once again to for­get­ful Man. He comes back this time look­ing and talk­ing a great deal like Ge­orge Burns, an im­prove­ment on his ear­lier cin­e­matic in­car­na­tions. And as his con­tact on Earth, he se­lects a com­mon man: John Den­ver, to the man­ner born.

Part of the movie’s charm is in the way it sur­prises us by treat­ing its sub­ject mat­ter with af­fec­tion and re­spect. I went ex­pect­ing blas­phe­mous jokes and cheap shots at re­li­gion, since se­ri­ous sub­jects so rarely make it into come­dies these days ex­cept as tar­gets. But no: “Oh, God!” is light­hearted, satir­i­cal, and hu­mor­ous and (that rarest of qual­i­ties) in good taste.

It also makes you feel good, in the way some of the Frank Capra come­dies did. The John Den­ver char­ac­ter be­comes a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of Mr. Smith, John Doe, Mr. Deeds, and those other Capra he­roes who pre­vailed be­cause they were de­cent, hon­est, and true. Once Den­ver gets over his ini­tial as­ton­ish­ment at be­ing se­lected as God’s spokesman, he makes a good job of it, jus­ti­fy­ing God’s faith in the com­mon man, which he, af­ter all, put into pro­duc­tion.

God is care­ful, through­out the movie, to make his rea­son­ing clear. Why did he pick Den­ver? “You’re like the lady who’s the mil­lionth per­son across the bridge and gets to meet the gov­er­nor. You’re bet­ter than some peo­ple, and worse than oth­ers, but you came across the bridge at the right time.” The mes­sage God wants to re­mind his crea­tures of is a sim­ple one: That things can turn out all right, al­though they will not nec­es­sar­ily or au­to­mat­i­cally do so. That we have ev­ery­thing here on Earth that we need to bring a happy end­ing to our story. And that we should try be­ing a lit­tle nicer to one an­other.

Carl Reiner’s cred­its as a direc­tor in­clude the im­mor­tal “Where’s Poppa?” (1970), a mas­ter­piece of comic bad taste. So there was rea­son to an­tic­i­pate a show­down again this time be­tween the sa­cred and the pro­fane. As an idea, in­deed, “Oh, God!” must have seemed al­most im­pos­si­bly sup­plied with ways to go wrong. But it doesn’t.

Reiner is su­perb at estab­lish­ing the right tone for this very dif­fi­cult ma­te­rial, and the cast­ing of Ge­orge Burns as God is an in­spi­ra­tion.

“I took this form,” God ex­plains, “be­cause if I showed my­self to you as I am, you wouldn’t be able to com­pre­hend me.” He chose his form well. God, as Burns, re­calls some of his mir­a­cles (the 1969 Mets), some of his mis­takes (to­bacco, gi­raffes, and av­o­ca­dos — “I made the seeds too big”), and some com­mon mis­con­cep­tions about him­self (“To tell you the truth, I spent the first five days think­ing and cre­ated ev­ery­thing on the sixth”). And he has such quiet au­thor­ity, such won­der­fully un­der­stated hu­mor, such pres­ence. John Den­ver, too, is well-cast: Sin­cere, be­liev­able, with that face so open and goofy. They work with Reiner, and with Larry Gel­bart’s screen­play, to cre­ate a movie that takes a re­ally risky comic gam­ble, and wins.

AP FILE

Ge­orge Burns and John Den­ver re­hearse their lines dur­ing the film­ing of the 1977 movie “Oh, God!”

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