Dir: Mark Joffe. Australia. 2001. 102 mins.
Although this intelligent comedy could well have bitten deeper and challenged its heavyweight targets (God, religion, insurance) more aggressively, it's nevertheless a pleasure to welcome a widescreen entertainment so confident in its adult, humanistic stance. With an intriguing premise and a star role exactly tailored to the eccentric, widely admired Scottish stand-up comedian and increasingly reliable actor Billy Connolly, The Man Who Sued God will perform well in its native Australia, where it opens on a formidable 220 screens from October 25, and will no doubt attract considerable attention internationally, especially in Britain.
Connolly plays Steve Myers, middle-aged dropout from a Sydney law practice, a marriage and modern corporate society in general. Now a directionless crayfisherman based in a beautiful coastal port, his fishing boat and only asset is spectacularly destroyed by lightning during a sudden storm. When flatly denied his insurance claim on the grounds that the cause was "an Act of God", the furiously indignant Steve starts a personal crusade: re-establishing his legal career, he will sue God by issuing a summons against His big city representatives, the leaders of the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Jewish faiths.
He soon collides (literally) with leading newspaper columnist and media commentator Anna Redmond, played in sharp, confrontational style by an excellent Judy Davis. With unsentimental directness and severely stylish haircut, Davis displays effortless comic adroitness, making her unlikely romantic pairing with the unshaven, shaggy-haired Connolly both richly absurd and completely believable.
Once the news of his impulsive legal action gets out, our maverick summonser is joined by other angry insurance holders who have been denied payments because of other so-called Acts of God. And the "supercilious toads", as Steve calls the various bishops, cardinals, rabbis and insurance company CEOs, realise they have got a fight on their hands. Don Watson's screenplay sets up the central courtroom battle ("Myers versus God") with commendable clarity but, having tempted us with heady anti-establishment and atheistic possibilities, Steve's courtroom appearances fail the satirical challenge. It's easy to imagine Billy Connolly himself offering a far more robust and challenging (and funnier) attack on God's apologists in one of his seemingly improvised stand-up performances: here he seems restrained by the script.
The on-screen courtroom audience "oohs" and "aahs" to an exaggerated degree; flinty Anna confesses to a long-held hatred of insurance companies which somehow compromises Steve's case; and Love is deemed to conquer any conflict between God and Mammon. As the romance takes centre stage, there's a noticeable sagging of commitment to what was shaping up as one of the great film premises.
However there is much to admire in Mark Joffe's intelligent, attractive feature. Both coastal and big city Australia are magnificently photographed; the inspired pairing of Connolly and Davis gives much pleasure; there are some joyous sequences of physical comedy; and God Himself makes effective appearances in some stunning storm and cloud effects, in a city-encircling bushfire and in the climactic crash arrival in the musty courtroom of a perfect white cockatoo.
Prod co: Gannon Films, Empress Road Productions
Aust/NZ dist: Buena Vista International
Int'l sales: Icon Distribution
Producer: Ben Gannon
Scr: Don Watson
Cinematography: Peter James
Prod des: Luigi Pittorino
Ed: Peter Barton
Music: David Bridie
Main cast: Billy Connolly, Judy Davis, Colin Friels, Wendy Hughes, Blair Venn