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God Said “Ha!”

It’s a wonderful life

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Let’s go down to basics. Most movies tell the stories; the manner in which these stories are told is largely secondary. I’m quite sure that most people, when leaving the movie, remember more vividly what happened, as opposed to how did it look. Briefly, cinema is more of a narrative-based medium, and not a visual one; there are certain exception, like the works of Fellini or maybe Koyaanisqatsi, but in most cases, movies are all about stories.

From which it follows that God Said “Ha!” is a quintessential movie, despite the fact that at first it really doesn’t seem to belong to a traditional mold. Based on a monoplay (a single extended monologue) by Julia Sweeney, formerly know as Pat on Saturday Night Live, it is adapted into a motion picture, directed and performed by Sweeney herself.

All that we see is a single set, looking like a spare living room of a house, with Sweeney telling her story alternatively sitting down, standing, or pacing back and forth.

That’s it, really -- there’s nothing else but a ninety-minute long monologue. The cinematic tricks are kept to a minimum. Sweeney doesn’t even act much; well, she does imitate the manners and voices of the many people her story concerns, but these are simple sketch-like character impressions, a simple tool in the trade of a professional comic. I have to admit, all of the above hardly sounds like a list of ingredients for a successful motion picture. Yet, I’m telling you, I was riveted, with the hour and a half passing in what felt like ten minutes.

And the reasons why God Said “Ha!’’ succeeds are just about even more basic than the manner it is presented on screen. The story that Sweeney tells is true; and it’s told in just about the best way for such a story, with the narrator seemingly talking directly to you, and the connection feels intimate and immediate.

Plus, of course, there’s the story which she tells. A few years ago, just after ending a highly successful stint on Saturday Night Live, Sweeney’s life seemed to be all coming up spades. She gets an amicable divorce and acquires a nice little apartment in Hollywood which she proceeds to set up as a bachelorette pad. But -- next, the titular pronouncement occurs, and things start going rather badly.

Sweeney’s brother gets cancer. She offers to care for him, and he moves in. Her parents, being, as she puts it, “naturally distraught”, move in, too. And then the troubles continue cropping up.

The story is suitable material for a straightforward, unsparing, emotion-tugging drama. The underlying themes are equally serious, with subtext dealing with mortality, family love, and religion. The genre is comedy.

And I don’t mean just ha-ha comedy. Sweeney goes for the jugular, with some sequences -- like the one involving her midnight trip to the supermarket for cat food which later segues into a fight with her father over the cat bowl -- going for much longer than seems reasonably possible, and, what’s more becoming consistently funnier with each minute.

The most impressive aspect of God Said “Ha!’’ is, of course, the fact that all the humor is not forced at all, but is seamlessly connected with the tragic backbone of the narrative. The story is told with so much humor that for most of the time it’s light and breezy, and as such can effortlessly change the mood in an instant.

A couple of things distracted me a bit. I wish Sweeney didn’t downplay more serious moments but embraced the tragic moments of her story as openly as the funny ones. Of course, it’s her personal story, and I’m sure she knows better how she feels about it; but I would prefer a bit more transparent window into her personality.

The second issue is the overall format of the movie; it’s clearly made on the set, but it’s constantly pretended that Sweeney is delivering her monologue to a packed audience which responds with enthusiastic laughter. What it made me think of was naturally the canned sitcom laugh track; but since all the laughs are deserved, I didn’t mind.

As always, it’s life that tells all the best stories.