Many actors have claimed that it's more fun to play villains than heroes. As such, it's reasonable to assume that it's more fun to play Satan than it is to play God. Al Pacino (The Devil's Advocate) and Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick) certainly seemed to enjoy playing The Prince of Darkness; bellowing through a series of colorful monologues about the glory of sin. Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) takes a similar approach to playing the character in Suing the Devil, but there's one major problem: he's saddled with the unfortunate task of playing Satan in an unbearably tame faith-based film.
The story begins with a young law student named Luke O'Brien (Bart Bronson), a handsome dullard undergoing a crisis of faith. He can't understand why God allows terrible things to happen in the world, and decides that the only reasonable reaction to this is to commit suicide. He goes to his car, pulls out a revolver and points it at his head. “Oh no, don't tell me I left the bullets at home!” he cries in frustration. He opens the glove compartment and – gasp – a Bible falls out. Overwhelmed by the power of this moment, Luke breaks down in tears while an earnest contemporary hymn swells on the soundtrack. It's a little jarring to be thrown into such melodrama so quickly, but it quickly becomes apparent that the filmmakers have almost no discernment when it comes to things like pacing or tone.
Angry that the world is such a mess, Luke decides he's going to do something no one has ever done before: he's going sue the devil for $8 trillion. Who gets the money if the devil loses the case? I dunno. The Salvation Army, maybe? Anyway, the bigger problem is that the devil isn't around to defend himself, and it's hard to hold a trial without a defendant. The good-natured judge (Roslyn Gentle, The Punisher) gives Luke thirty days to find the devil. Where to look? Luke's initial idea is to check the local law firms and strip clubs. Because Suing the Devil is aimed at religious audiences, the film's idea of a strip club is a place where women wearing colorful blouses and yoga pants sit or stand near a stripper pole.
Luke's search initially seems to be a failure, but suddenly, the devil (McDowell) shows up. He thinks it'll be amusing to defend himself in court. Little does he know that he is trapped in the cinematic equivalent of a weird, heavy-handed church play.
Suing the Devil is predictable in the way it proceeds to defeat the devil with straw man arguments and religious bluster, but bizarre in the way it handles a lot of the little details. When Satan's crimes are being listed, the sin that keeps getting mentioned over and over again is his involvement with big oil companies. I guess oil companies do some pretty shady stuff, but surely there are more serious offenses on the list? Indeed, one of Luke's most impassioned speeches concludes with the young lawyer blurting, “Think, people, think! Oil company! Satan! Evil!” Well, that's a persuasive legal argument.
Another peculiar element: at one point, Satan suggests that while he may be a criminal, God is a mass murderer. Old Scratch takes responsibility for the death of Job's family, sure, but that pales in comparison to the great flood, right? The film never bothers to rebut this notion, instead focusing on justifying God's actions:
Satan: “Do you know how many people are going to hell? Over two billion people according to The Book of Revelations. What do you think that says about him?"
Luke: “That he is a just God who punishes wickedness!”
Well, okay then. Also, you'd think that a faith-based film would know that the actual name of the book is Revelation, but that's hardly the sloppiest oversight. In one courtroom scene, Luke makes a joke, and the crowd laughs... but they don't laugh immediately. Luke makes the joke, there's a lengthy pause and then the crowd laughs in unison (as if they've just received a signal from the director). In one dialogue scene shot from a single camera angle, there's an abrupt and completely unnecessary cut in the middle, as if a flubbed line has been snipped from a single take. Couldn't they have done another take? One doesn't expect slick professionalism from a low-budget production like this, but this is amateurish even by the low standards of faith-based cinema.
McDowell's performance isn't exactly one of the benchmark moments of his career, but he acts circles around everyone else in the movie (including Tom Sizemore, who makes a few odd appearances as a cable news pundit on a program co-hosted by Corbin Bernsen and Christian singer Rebecca St. James). He maintains his charisma and professionalism even in the hokiest of moments (such as the scene when Satan starts dry-heaving after Luke starts reading Bible verses aloud).
Alas, poor Bart Bronson seems severely unqualified for this sort of thing. He has the look of a magazine model, yes, but he can't suppress the urge to stop smirking at inappropriate moments and his line readings are unbearably stiff. It doesn't help that the lines are so terrible, of course – there are more than a few unintentional grammatical errors in the dialogue. At one point, Luke takes the witness stand and is required to answer for his sins. “Have you ever done internet porn?” the defense attorney asks. “Yes,” Luke admits. Surely the filmmakers didn't intend to imply that their mostly-saintly hero had been a porn star in the past? At another point, Luke admits to using the f-word during a moment of anger, and the crowd gasps. Of course, the film itself never permits any profanity, instead employing phrases like, “Sit your jack-in-the-box face down!” Again with the weird lines – who tells someone to sit their face down?
Suing the Devil is objectively terrible, but I'll admit that there were moments when I found its clumsy earnestness oddly endearing. It has the nerve to incorporate lines from vastly better movies into miniature sermons: Satan's cry of “You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!” is followed by, “Yes, I can handle the truth... the truth of Jesus Christ.” Plus, it has an ending so shameless nonsensical that I was almost tempted to applaud the movie for sheer chutzpah. Almost.
Suing the Devil
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 2011