Friday November 1, 1996
You'll remember the scene late in "Miracle on 34th Street" where a postal employee gets the bright idea to deliver all those stored-up "Dear Santa" letters to the courtroom where a man claiming to be Kris Kringle stands accused of being nuts. The official recognition by the U.S. Postal Service is the little miracle that sets Santa free.
"Dear God" burrows into the Dead Letter Office itself, five decades later and on the opposite coast, where a cheap Los Angeles hustler named Tom Turner (Greg Kinnear) and his oddball co-workers begin whipping up miracles for people addressing undeliverable pleas to God. There's an anguished mother whose sick daughter dreams of riding a horse. Another mother who doesn't have enough money to repair her son's bedroom window for the winter. A homeless man who wants the trumpet he'd pawned years before.
Like a squad of Stealth Samaritans, the postal workers fan out in the impoverished sections of L.A. to selflessly answer God's mail. And as word of the miracles gets around, citizens throughout the city are suddenly inspired to whip up miracles of their own. But opening mail, even in the dead letter bins marked "Santa," "Elvis," "Easter Bunny" and "God," is a felony, and Turner ends up in court, like Kris Kringle, in need of a miracle himself.
As trite as the framework is, "Dear God" might have been a charming holiday film, if only its miracles weren't so trite. Marshall, working with an unimaginative script by Warren Leight and Ed Kaplan, sets these events up with great fanfare, but there's no real surprise or joy in them. The director of "Pretty Woman" has fallen back into the sitcom mode of his earlier TV successes ("Happy Days," "Laverne and Shirley") and the jokey rhythm, interrupted by thick sentimental pauses, is all wrong.
Kinnear, whose comedy style may be described as Michael Keaton without the smugness, is engaging enough as Turner, a horse gambler and big-time slacker who takes the post office job as an alternative to jail. And there are nice moments between him and Maria Pitillo, playing the divorcee for whom he tries to go straight, that showcase his obvious appeal as a romantic leading man. But this is a weak choice as a follow-up to his well-reviewed debut in "Sabrina."
Marshall intercuts the romantic story line with the screwy antics of the dead letter crew. Tim Conway, playing a once-proud postman busted in rank for biting a dog, has a high time doing the deadpan burlesque that made him so popular on Carol Burnett's television show.
Tired as the material is, Conway is an irresistible trouper, and he delivers the film's biggest laughs. Among the other miracle workers in the Dead Letter Office are Laurie Metcalf, as a burned-out lawyer with an arsenal of facial tics; Roscoe Lee Browne, a failed musician inching toward retirement; and Jon Seda, as a self-proclaimed Latin lover. The always-entertaining Hector Elizondo has a few good scenes as the group's kindhearted Russian supervisor.
Dear God, 1996. PG for language, mild thematic elements. Times guideline: mild profanity. A Steve Tisch production, released by Paramount. Director Garry Marshall. Producer Tisch. Screenplay by Warren Leight, Ed Kaplan. Cinematographer Charles Minsky. Editor Debra Neil-Fisher. Costume supervisor Deborah Hopper. Music Jeremy Lubbock, James Patrick Dunne. Production design Albert Brenner. Art director Gregory Bolton. Set decoration Garrett Lewis. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Greg Kinnear as Tom Turner. Laurie Metcalf as Rebecca Frazen. Maria Pitillo as Gloria McKinney. Tim Conway as Herman Dooley. Hector Elizondo as Vladek Vidov. Roscoe Lee Brown as Idris Abraham.