Dir. Carl Reiner
Premiered October 7, 1977
Last December, I rushed to see Martin Scorsese’s latest feature, Silence. Although Scorsese is Catholic and I’m Jewish, It was the best depiction of faith I’d ever seen in a Hollywood movie; dealing with the rarely-depicted conflict between two equally moral choices: is it better to save yourself to honor God another day, or to sacrifice oneself as a light in the darkness?
Alas, such is the state of religion in America that Silence flopped while B-grade fundamentalist exploitation films profit wildly as they extoll bitter fantasies of government persecution, deranged loveless courtships, and most of all the understanding that God will grant you wishes if you worship him the right way. It is this underhandedly cruel, almost Randian philosophy that gives truth to the strawman argument promoted by the juvenile “New Atheists” that faith is nothing more than a belief in fairy tales.
Yes, this is a super-heavy intro to a comedy review, but it’s relevant because of how much Oh, God! is emblematic of where that all began. Popular culture is no longer capable of dealing with religion in a mature manner. Not that it was ever that easy, but the conversation has been so dominated by one particularly immodest, anti-intellectual brand of Christianity that society at large has lost grasp on the big questions. The closest we’ve come to a another movie like Oh, God! is Bruce Almighty– a movie that ignores the issue of faith altogether and, just like the hacks at PureFlix, treats religion as a superpower (theologians typically refer to this as “Scientology”).
Sure, Oh, God! is funny. It’s been blessed by the talents of Director Carl Reiner, screenwriter Larry Gelbart, and legendary comic George Burns as the man upstairs himself. But what makes Oh, God! truly great is that it gets this.
For all its sense of humor, Oh, God! is probably Reiner’s most serious-minded film, even mocking how Hollywood has dumbed down our understanding of Him. Jerry Landers (John Denver) is a nebbishy but earnest assistant manager at a California supermarket. He’s a good man, not the best, and not particularly special. So he falls prey to the luck of the draw when God invites him, first only by voice, then in the form of a kindly, wry old Jewish man.
In an exchange not unlike that at the burning bush, Jerry is not confident for the challenge. He’s not a nonbeliever? God doesn’t mind.“Religion is easy. Faith is the hard thing.” Believer or no, it’s still the Me Decade, and the new faith leaders are heretics like televangelist Willie Williams (Paul Sorvino). People invest so much faith in themselves that they expect God to serve them rather than the other way around. And where does that lead us? War, greed, environmental degradation, and unhappiness. God quotes Voltaire, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” And at first, nobody believes Jerry. And even when they do, they’re the wrong kind of people; he’s still a joke for the public’s mockery and an embarrassment to his wife (Teri Garr) and kids. But God’s a nice guy. And that makes Jerry, and the audience, feel a lot better.
Leave it to a 40-year-old comedy film to be the best God movie on the market.
Signs This Was Made in 1977
Mrs. Landers uses a bizarre mini exercise machine that looks like a novelty telephone. Network television goes off the air sometime after midnight. Jerry appears on Dinah. The Reverend Willie Williams pays six figures a year in income tax.
How Did It Do?
Grossing $51.1 million dollars, Oh, God! was the most financially successful comedy of 1977, the sixth highest grossing film of the year worldwide. This was so shocking to me that I assumed the data was including some later release I didn’t know about. It wasn’t. This was huge. Huge enough to become a trilogy, huge enough for my (totally non-religious) mom to endlessly nudge me toward renting it at Blockbuster back in the 90s.
She’s not the only one. Oh, God! made many top 10 lists in 1977, Gene Siskel especially loved it, and it has a 72% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Less favorable criticisms from the time largely amount to it either being too silly or not silly enough (sidenote: it’s not very silly). Ironically, audience reviews on RT are generally not as positive, with the vast majority of negative reviews coming from youngish New Atheists lumping it in with the likes of God’s Not Dead and fundamentalists upset at the film’s suggestion that God makes mistakes and experiences remorse (which, of course, is something that’s also in the Bible). Typical.
Next Time: Equus