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God Said Ha!

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 12 February 1999

  Written, Directed, and Performed by Julia Sweeney

Breaking the farce-laden mold that so many cast members of Saturday Night Live have set for themselves, with legions of SNL alumni moving on to the greener pastures of Hollywood broad-based comedies and prime time sitcoms, Julia Sweeney fashions a small, poignant, survivalist gem that’s simple in concept, entertaining in delivery, and big in heart. Sweeney has graduated from the lesser SNL-induced relics of the androgynous It’s Pat and the lame Stuart Saves His Family, and taken a bittersweet serio-comic approach to the death of her brother Michael and her own medical trials and tribulations, basically filming her heart-tugging yet lively railings that became her acclaimed one-person show. That theater piece -- God Said, "Ha!" -- directed by Greg Kachel (who gets co-producer status on the film, originally opened at the Magic Theater in San Francisco in early 1996 and ran for three sold out months. During a subsequent successful run in Los Angeles, Quentin Tarantino (the film’s executive producer who appears briefly at the film’s end) brought the idea of filming the production to producer Rana Joy Glickman, and the challenge began. Instead of opening the performance up, the filmmakers (including production designer Gail Bennett, cinematographer John Hora, and editor Fabienne Rawley) used a few cameras to cover a stark, streamlined set (based on set designer Thom Biggart’s original for the stage), forcing your attention at Sweeney and riveting you for 85 minutes, with the crew occasionally becoming part of the blocking.

The film first surfaced on the festival market, including South by Southwest, Seattle International (Best Film), Palm Springs, and Toronto, with Miramax, fresh from its success earning 23 Oscar nominations earlier this week, blessing the film (an appropriately named Oh Brother Production) for initial commercial release this weekend in New York and Los Angeles. For those of you elsewhere, keep an eye out (with Sweeney’s luck, it’ll open in your town on May 21st, opposite you know what), and, during the wait, pick up the Bantam book, Warner CD, or audiobook (all adapted from the stage work) and have a good laugh/cry.

Comparisons to the autobiographical work of Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box) and the immensely enjoyable two character piece My Dinner with Andre are obvious, and God is just as rewarding. Since this is not a movie in a cinematic sense (I suspect the subtle light changes are of theatrical origin), don’t go looking for much action. Thank goodness there are movies like this that just flow over you, instead of beating you over the head with special effects.

Sweeney disarms you immediately from the get go, inviting you into her Hollywood home (actually not much more than a chair, sofa, throw rug, pillows, a lamp, and a few other props), spinning tales of her failed marriage, her family, either drum-beating about her brothers, especially Mike, who moved in with her during his losing battle with lymph cancer, or mimicking her overbearing yet peculiar parents (dad’s an NPR junkie, mom’s mixed up) as they relocate from the Spokane, Washington, house into Sweeney’s smallish bungalow. Partly self-demeaning, but always refreshing, we share her human monologue about life and death, of her fears, particularly after she is diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer, and her valiant (I can see her cringing when I use that word) struggle and uplifting victory in her "house of cancer."

Her embellished recollections bring you face to face with life in the bureaucratic fast lane, of medical indecision’s, of sex on the fly, of Michael’s demanding chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It’s a Cobb salad with Sweeney’s own particular dressing. Filling and delicious, much like her thoughts on how the food changed in her home during her parents’ visit. The bottle Samuel Adams beer in the fridge is replaced with canned Pabst Blue Ribbon. Or the Trader Joe’s chunky salsa being eaten and replaced by Del Monte tomato paste, Mom Sweeney convinced it was an even match up.

"Even if I used words like ‘pasta,’ it was as if I was throwing my big city ways right into their faces. They'd say, ‘You mean noodles?’ And if I used a phrase like ‘marinara sauce,’ it really blew their minds, so after a few months I was reduced to saying things like, ‘Hey, how about the noodles with the red topping?’"

Obviously, Sweeney’s ingratiating delivery is the film’s key, and that’s something that can’t be properly reflected in an 750-word review. Seeing is enjoying. So drop your SNL preconceptions and get ready to relish (get out the red topping) something terribly hilarious.

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