Oh, God!

The original theatrical poster for Carl Reiner's 1977 comedy Oh, God! - starring lovable old George Burns as an oh-so-human incarnation of The Almighty - promises something fairly provocative: “Anybody who could turn Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah and make it rain for forty days and forty nights has got to be a fun guy.” Well, damn.

It's a pretty sharp advertising hook, but the film itself has no real interest in exploring some of the more controversial moments from God's highlight reel. Instead, it's much closer to a religion-themed version of Miracle on 34th Street, presenting God as a very real, very friendly old chap with a playful sense of humor, a self-sustained aura of mystery and whole lot of patience. It's a surprisingly warm and reverent film, assuming that religious viewers can forgive a few moments in which God gently contradicts the beliefs of their religion of choice (that's a mighty big assumption, admittedly). This version of God cheerfully suggests that Voltaire probably came the closest to an accurate description: “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”

The main character in this story is not “the big G” (his term, not mine), but a humble grocery story assistant manager named Jerry Landers (John Denver, Higher Ground). One day, Jerry gets a mysterious note inviting him to show up at a local office building for a personal conversation with God. Jerry's wife Bobbie (Teri Garr, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) insists that it must be some sort of prank (“It's an ad for God detergent or something”), but Jerry can't stop thinking about it. He goes to the specified meeting location, where he's greeted by a disembodied voice claiming to be God. The voice says that he wants Jerry to be his messenger to the world... sort of a modern-day Moses. Jerry (who's more or less agnostic) dismisses the whole thing as some sort of joke, so God decides to reveal himself as a man who looks an awful lot like George Burns. “This isn't my real form,” God says. “It's just something you can understand.”

The jokes the film serves up are about as mild and inoffensive as they come (God expresses regret over creating avocado pits, and makes admissions like, “The last miracle I performed was the 1969 Mets”), but what's surprising is that the movie is less interested in serving up giggles than in having a sincere (if lightweight) conversation about the complicated relationship between God and humanity. Naturally, one of the first questions Jerry serves up is of the “if you're God, then why do bad things happen?” variety. God makes the argument that humans are the source of their own problems: “I don't permit the suffering. You do. Free will. All the choices are yours.”

Indeed, this God is a whole lot more relaxed and open-minded than the one most people seem to be selling. He wants people to have faith in him, but he's less interested in gaining believers than in ensuring that they know he's rooting for them. He makes a lot of mistakes and has a lot of regrets, but he's a well-intentioned guy who's justifiably proud of his work on the Grand Canyon and the mackerel. He's the father of Jesus... and also the father of Buddha, Mohammed, Moses and Joe Q. Nobody. He doesn't have much time for doctrinal nonsense. He doesn't want to talk about that silly end of days business. He'd really like it if people would stop polluting the planet. He's a good egg.

Oh, God! isn't anything groundbreaking, but it somehow manages to get looser, funnier and more appealing as it proceeds. It hits its stride once it arrives at a conflict between poor Jerry (whose claims of divine contact make him both a pariah and a media celebrity) and a group of serious-minded religious leaders led by pompous televangelist Willie Williams (Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas). Sorvino's performance is a gloriously silly piece of work: the actor perfectly captures the bizarre cadences of a '70s TV preacher, but delivers them with such ridiculous enthusiasm that he begins to feel like a live-action South Park character. I've never seen Sorvino deliver anything else quite like it.

The whole thing builds up to a big courtroom sequence (again, Miracle on 34th Street is the chief inspiration here) that plays out in predictably goofy fashion. This is a formulaic comedy in a lot of ways, but given the subject matter, it's sort of remarkable to consider the way it skillfully toes the line between delicate religious satire and an entirely sincere suggestion that a little faith – any kind of faith - might do humanity a lot of good. I don't really buy it, but it's a shame that more religious films can't deliver their messages of inspiration with this level of non-judgmental, unforced charm.

Oh, God!

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 1977