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Review: Oh God! (1977)

Oh God! (1977)

Directed by: Carl Reiner

Premise: God (George Burns) reveals himself to an assistant manager of a grocery store (John Denver) and recruits him to be a prophet. This causes tension in the manager’s work and home life as he tries to spread God’s message.

What Works: Oh, God! is an innocuous and well intended picture. In many respects, this film is comparable to Miracle on 34th Street. It has a similar tone and includes related themes as a nonbeliever is converted and compelled to prove his discovery to secular society. And like George Seaton’s 1947 film, Oh, God! has a decency and niceness about it that makes the movie agreeable. The film is led by John Denver as Jerry, the assistant manager of a grocery store who lives a relatively simple life with his wife (Terri Garr) and their children. Jerry is not an extraordinary person nor is he religious. But he is a competent and decent person and the actor and the filmmakers do an effective job of establishing him in the opening of the movie. The grocer is visited by God, played by George Burns. The actor was a comedy legend and key to his appeal as a comic was Burns’ agreeable and grandfatherly demeanor. Burns had a softness that was disarming but he also had a mischievous glimmer in his eye and he was quick with a joke; George Burns’ skill at delivering one-liners was legendary and that talent is put to use here. Cast in the title role in Oh, God!, Burns’ qualities makes his version of the Almighty a wise and accessible character. The premise of Oh, God! creates a potential problem. As a comedy, the movie needs to be irreverent but that risks putting off the religious audience. But if the movie were too pious the humor would suffer. The filmmakers of Oh, God! successfully balance the tone of the movie by allowing Burns to do his shtick while Denver plays his role earnestly. As Jerry is convinced that he’s really talking to God, he goes about spreading the Almighty’s message and that causes tension in his family and with his employer. The domestic drama puts something palatable at stake and the challenges that Jerry faces put the audience on his side. Oh, God! was released in the late 1970s at a time when televangelists were amassing significant cultural and political power. In the course of the story, Jerry comes into conflict with a Jim Bakker-type played by Paul Sorvino. This subplot gives the movie some thematic weight as it critiques prosperity theology and allows the movie some substance in its climax.

What Doesn’t: At one point in this film God describes himself by quoting Voltaire who wrote, “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.” While this description suits the movie, it is also more edgy than anything in Oh, God! The movie treads upon satire but it holds back. The premise of Oh, God! invites absurdity and the movie veers in that direction as John Denver’s character appears on television and attracts a following of groupies and seekers. Oh, God! is primed to become a satire in the order of Being There and Life of Brian but it’s never as sharp or as insightful as those titles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Oh, God! is intended as a feel-good movie and it’s laughs are easy and its tone is agreeable. But Oh, God! is unable to penetrate very deeply into its themes and ideas. In a way this a prototype for a lot of the faith-based movies that are being made forty years after Oh, God!’s release; the filmmakers don’t challenge the viewer nor do they make any significant intellectual, spiritual, or moral demands on the audience. God’s message in this story is simply to take care of each other and the planet; it’s never more complex than that and the movie glosses over tougher or deeper questions. That suits the movie’s tone but the filmmakers miss an opportunity to do something more.

DVD extras: Commentary track and trailers.

Bottom Line: Oh, God! is an agreeable and entertaining movie. While the filmmakers sidestep opportunities to be more satirical, they succeed at making the movie that they intended and Oh, God! is fun and lighthearted entertainment with a smidge of spiritual insight. 

Episode: #643 (April 16, 2017)