Los Angeles Times

God Said, "Ha!"

Friday February 12, 1999

     By 1994, life was looking up for comedian Julia Sweeney. She had just completed a run on "Saturday Night Live" that brought her national acclaim and recognition (particularly for her androgynous character Pat), came to an amicable parting of ways with her husband and, best of all, bought her dream house, a small home in Hollywood.
     That's when, to borrow the apt title of her heart-wrenching yet funny one-woman stage show, "God Said, 'Ha!' " It has now been preserved on film, thanks to Quentin Tarantino, who signed on as executive producer and brought the show to the attention of producer Rana Joy Glickman.
     While no film of her show could probably equal the overall impact of its live performance (at the Coronet in Los Angeles, and then on to Broadway), this Miramax release comes close and does it justice; indeed, there are moments of Sweeney in close-up that bring an intimacy and power not possible across the footlights. In directing herself, she allows cinematographer John Hora to use effectively a fluid camera.
     For some reason, the film also features joltingly abrupt cuts, yet the essence of the show comes across intact, punctuated discreetly by Anthony Marinelli's spare score. (Shooting took place principally on a sound stage rather than a theater, with production designer Gail Bennett replicating closely the living room furniture plus theater curtains Sweeney used as a setting on stage.)
     Sweeney's annus horribilis began with her brother Mike being diagnosed as terminally ill with lymphoma and climaxed with the discovery that she was stricken with a rare form of cervical cancer. In between, her parents descended upon her from Spokane, Wash., for the duration, which meant, among countless other adjustments, that they took over her bedroom and her brother her guest room, while she slept in her backyard office.
     Rocked by a sense of the absurdity of the cruel workings of fate, Sweeney, as a gifted comedian, began coping with them with humor by creating an act that she developed at LunaPark's "Uncabaret." This performance eventually grew into her one-woman show, whose title came from an old Yiddish saying: "If you want to make God laugh, make plans."
     It's obviously no simple matter to transform personal catharsis into entertainment. Yet that is precisely what Sweeney accomplishes by playing the tragic deterioration of her brother (who gallantly proved pretty humorous himself in the face of grim fate) against the comic clashes of everyday life in a crowded household, where Sweeney began to feel like a teenager again instead of the independent woman in her mid-30s she had become. Her mother comes across as a sweetly obtuse sitcom parent, chagrined that her daughter would grate her own Parmesan cheese when she could buy it already grated; Sweeney says that early on she gave in to referring to pasta marinara as "macaroni with red sauce." (Sweeney, to her credit, is not above poking fun at her own yuppie strivings.)
     She describes her father as something of a tippler with his Walkman constantly tuned to National Public Radio and forever covering the dining room table with picture puzzles. In the end, Sweeney sees her parents as heroes in their staunchness, infinitely more than "a source of comedy--or a reason for therapy." Sweeney's abundant gift of humor allows her unflinchingly to confront and report every harrowing detail of her brave brother's downward spiral. Consequently, against all odds, "God Said, 'Ha!' " manages to leave us with spirits uplifted.

God Said, "Ha!" , 1999. PG-13, for thematic elements and some drug references. A Miramax Films presentation of an Oh Brother production. Writer-director Julia Sweeney. Producer Rana Joy Glickman. Executive producer Quentin Tarantino. Cinematographer John Hora. Editor Fabienne Rawley. Music Anthony Marinelli. Costume designer Mary Zophres. Production designer Gail Bennett. Art directors Steve Joyner, Caylah Eddleblute. Set designer Thom Biggert. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. Julia Sweeney as as herself.

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