Tag Archives: George Burns

Oh, God! (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: An atheist meets God.

Jerry Landers (John Denver) is a married man with two kids (Moosie Drier, Rachel Longaker) who works as an assistant manager at a local grocery store. He doesn’t consider himself to be religious nor does he attend church (he most likely could be called an atheist, but I assume that term was considered ‘too toxic’ of a label to put on a protagonist that mainstream audiences of the day were expected to like, so he’s just given the much softer description of being a non-believer.) One day he receives a letter in the mail stating that God would like to interview him at a certain location, but Jerry considers this to be a practical joke and throws it away, but when the letter keeps popping up at the most unlikely places he finally decides to take it seriously. He goes to the location and meets God (George Burns) who at first he does not see, but only hears, but eventually the almighty takes the form of an old man. He tells Jerry to spread the word that he exists, which Jerry does only to have it all snowball against him when everyone thinks he’s crazy and even his own family becomes embarrassed to be seen with him.

The film is based on the 1971 Avery Corman novel of the same name though the book had more of a satirical tone and the protagonist was a journalist. The film though manages to retain the same jaded sensibilities of the modern-day public, which is what makes it so amusing and for the most part quite on-target. Denver, who was known more as a singer and did very little acting both before or after this, is quite good here, but only if you can get past his bowl haircut. Burns is excellent as well and I always felt this is the performance he should’ve won the Academy Award for instead of the one in The Sunshine Boys as it easily became his signature role.

The script though by Larry Gelbart is full of incongruities. For instance the God here claims to be a non-interventionist who sets the process in motion and then lets things happen without getting involved. Everyone is given free will and he doesn’t intervene to stop suffering or ‘bad things’ from occurring because that would upset the ‘natural balance’, but then turns around and admits that he had a hand in such superficial things as helping the 1969 New York Mets win the pennant. He is also forced to become a ‘side show magician’ by performing what amounts to being magic acts, like doing a tacky card trick in front of a judge, in order to prove to Jerry and others that he really is the almighty. Yet he then becomes shocked to find that Jerry’s simple word-of-mouth as well as having Jerry pass out God’s ‘calling card’, which is nothing more than a white card with the word God on it, as not being enough to somehow convince others of the same thing.

There’s also a weird conversation, which I found loopy even as a child, where God tries to prove a point by explaining to Jerry that people only dream in black-and-white, which apparently was an accepted belief a long time ago. This idea has later been found to be incorrect, which is good as I’ve always dreamed in color, but it’s still off-kilter to have this supposedly all-knowing God argue a talking point from a debunked myth.

The performances by the supporting cast help  and in fact I consider this to be Teri Garr’s best role as I found her character arch to be more interesting than Denver’s. The aging Ralph Bellamy is good as an aggressive defense attorney and I also like Barnard Hughes as the overwhelmed judge. William Daniels is amusing as Denver’s snippy boss and a type of authoritative character he’d put to perfection years later in the TV-show ‘St. Elsewhere’. Paul Sorvino gets a few laughs too in a send-up of an over-the-top TV evangelist.

The only one that I had a problem with was Donald Pleasance who gets fourth billing, but only 2 lines of dialogue. With such a versatile talent as his you don’t want to waste it by giving him such a small role and unless a lot of his work here ended up on the cutting room floor I’m genuinely surprised why he even took it.

The film is mildly entertaining, but ultimately quite benign and nowhere near as ‘profound’ as some considered it. Nonetheless it was a big hit and even knocked Star Wars out of the top spot for 1-week. It also spawned 2 sequels as well as a TV-movie called ‘Human Feelings’ where Nancy Walker plays a female God set to destroy Las Vegas with a flood unless Billy Crystal, who plays an angel, can find 6 virtuous people that live there.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 7, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Carl Reiner

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Going in Style (1979)

going-in-style

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old guys rob bank.

Three elderly men (George Burns, Art Carney, Lee Strasburg) who are living together in a rundown Brooklyn apartment and on a fixed income decide one day to liven up their lives by robbing a bank. None of them have ever committed a crime before and don’t even know how to handle a gun, but end up pulling off a major heist nonetheless and getting away with $35,000 in cash. However, things begin to fall apart once the crime is completed and even a side-trip to Vegas can’t keep the feds from slowly moving in.

On the outset the plot seems like a very funny idea and some of the social context about the difficulties of growing old that gets mixed in with it is right on-target. However, to me it just doesn’t come together. The men latch on to the idea too quickly and I would’ve expected more resistance or having at least one of them chickening out at the last second. These are individuals with no criminal record and although I realize that they are bored why couldn’t they have just taken up a new hobby or social cause instead. It’s not like they were out on the streets or completely desperate. The apartment they resided in looked livable enough and I might’ve bought into the premise better had one of them needed a major operation and thus the others were forced to go to extremes like robbing a bank to help pay for it.

The part where they sit around a table trying to figure out which stack of bullets goes into which gun is amusing and quite possibly the best bit in the film, but there’s a lot more comic potential that could’ve been squeezed out of this otherwise quirky plot that is never taken advantage of. The crime gets carried off in too much of a seamless fashion with a myriad of possible problems that could’ve and should’ve cropped up being completely overlooked.

The second half that deals with two of them taking a trip to Vegas seems like a plotline to a whole different movie.  Writer/director Martin Brest should’ve chosen one or the other by either playing up the bank robbery premise and its preparation more or just rolled from the beginning with the Vegas trip, which has a lot of funny untapped potential as well, but cramming the two together or not taking enough advantage of either one was a mistake.

Burns gives an excellent performance and I was amazed how very talented this 83 year-old gentlemen was especially when you factor in that he never had any formal acting training and was basically just a vaudeville comedian, but here he creates a convincing and surprisingly savvy character. Strasberg, who spent years as an acting teacher and didn’t do any film roles until much later in his life, is superb as well and I was disappointed his character wasn’t in more scenes.

A reboot of this film has already been completed and set for an April 7, 2017 release. It will star Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin as the three elderly men and I’m quite interested to see how the two versions deviate from the other. I’m hoping that the comedy angle gets played up more and from reading the synopsis I have an inkling it will. It hopefully will be an improvement as I came away from this one feeling like it had missed-the-mark.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Martin Brest

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube