God Said "Ha!"
directed by Julia Sweeney
(Oh Brother, 1998)

Saturday Night alumna Julia Sweeney thought she finally had it all together: some free time, an amicable divorce and a little one-bedroom house in Los Angeles where she could regroup, relax and reflect -- alone. It was then, just as if He had been waiting for the worst possible time, that God said, "Ha!" Or, more accurately, "Take that!"

Her 31-year-old brother, Michael, discovers he has cancer. Sweeney opens her L.A. home and Michael moves in. Her distraught parents pack up the house in Spokane, Wash., and head south. They also move in with Sweeney. And then, within months, Sweeney herself is diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer. It was, she says now, "a surreal nightmare."

To get through the nightmare, Sweeney and her family looked for whatever humor they could find in the situation. And Sweeney, once the darkness had lifted, turned her experiences into God Said "Ha!", a one-woman show on Broadway.

Now, with the help of producer Quentin Tarantino, she's turned her stage show into a movie. And it's a lesson in how good material and an experienced producer don't necessarily make a great movie. Sweeney's material is bittersweet and, usually, gentle. It's not, with a few exceptions, a laugh-out-loud kind of frenzy. Much of it -- at times, most of it -- centers around the conflicts with her parents. She feels they're provincial; they think she's become too urbane because she uses words like "pasta" instead of "noodles."

When she gets a boyfriend, Sweeney feels like she's back in high school, chafing under her parents' presence and longing for college -- until she realizes, with horror, that she's already been to college. It's all amusing but much of it, with the exception of a bit at the end about her mother ordering a "new Jesus" for her church, stops there. It just sounds like a funny conversation overheard in the supermarket.

When Sweeney talks about Michael, about his need to examine the credentials of every doctor who walks in the room, about his beloved Reservoir Dogs T-shirt, about his humor in the face of death, it's another story altogether. Those sections ring with more resonance, partly because you know Michael won't make it, and partly because she takes you through her own cancer scare. What's missing, though, is the sense of watching this with other people, of sharing Sweeney's show with the rest of the audience.

As a theater experience, it would be a stronger show. But watching it on video just made it feel like your average Comedy Central program. The camera never shows an audience. What laughter there is sounds like a laugh track. There's just a small stage, a couple of couches, and Sweeney -- who, though she can be funny, isn't mesmerizing unless she's talking about Michael.

Many theater experiences are successfully transferred to film. But this one needs that spark, that shared experience with other people, in a dark theater, to really make the material shine.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.