The Man Who Sued God (2001)


Australia. 2001.


Director – Mark Joffe, Screenplay – Don Watson, Based on an Original Screenplay by John Clarke, Producer – Ben Gannon, Photography – Peter James, Music – Peter Bridie, Visual Effects – Animal Logic Film (Supervisor – Murray Pope), Production Design – Luigi Pittorino. Production Company – Gannon Films/Empress Road Productions/Showtime Australia/New South Wales Film and Television Office/The Australian Film Finance Corp


Billy Connolly (Steve Myers), Judy Davis (Anna Redmond), Bille Brown (Gerry Ryan), Colin Friels (Dave Myers), Wendy Hughes (Jules Myers), Blair Venn (Les), Emily Browning (Rebecca Myers), Vincent Ball (Cardinal), John Howard (Edward Piggott), Linal Haft (Rabbi), Frank Whitten (Primate), Tim Robertson (Judge)


Steve Myers, a Scottish fisherman living in Australia, has the fishing boat, which is his entire livelihood, destroyed by a lightning bolt. His insurance company refuses to pay out, saying that they do not cover extraordinary accidents or ‘Acts of God’. And so Steve, a former lawyer, mounts a case in the courts in which he sues the churches as the supposed representatives of God for such Acts of God. The churches, placed in the uncomfortable position of either denying the existence of God or admitting liability, mount an uncompromising defence. At first regarded as a crank, Steve instead becomes a cause celebre when journalist Anna Redmond persuades him to stand up on behalf of all people who have been disadvantaged by the insurance companies’ refusal to pay out over Acts of God.

This Australian comedy, featuring Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and supported by most of the Australian actors guild (it would seem), was a modest international hit in 2002. It is a rather odd and schizophrenic film. It is more of a shaggy dog story than a fully realised film. It takes up the scabrously satiric idea of a man suing the churches for damage caused by ‘Acts of God’, although when it is pared down all the film does is make the slightly ironic observation that the insurance industry promotes the idea of Acts of God as an excuse for not paying in extraordinary circumstances, while they themselves do not believe in God. While in the real world, Acts of God coverage does routinely occur in the insurance industry, the film gets quite irate and worked up about this supposed injustice. Although in lieu of actually wielding any real argument, the film tends to deliver its point-of-view more as a series of one-sided, soundbite-sized one-liners.

Certainly, there is much that is of rich satiric potential in the film. However, where it should have flown as dark satire, it tends to get relayed as lowbrow slapstick. The credits note that the screenplay has been based on another original screenplay. One gets the clear impression that it has been substantially reworked from the original conception to the likings of director Mark Joffe, previously known for the likes of Cosi (1996) and The Matchmaker (1997). Joffe’s films essentially inhabit the same Australian comedic territory as the likes of The Castle (1996) and the Crocodile Dundee films – in featuring the vulgar triumphs of parochial and individualistic rough diamond characters that put one over pretentious city slickers. Here though Mark Joffe starts to caricature – the lawyers, the insurance agents and the clerics are all cast as pompous straw figures, while the plaintiffs are equally caricatured as decent, ordinary working class people who have been exploited and cheated by a greedy insurance industry. Joffe’s slapstick approach tends to subvert the satirical bite of the film. Where the film should have sunken its teeth into its targets, Joffe concentrates on clumsy scenes involving Billy Connolly falling over drunk in a Japanese restaurant and fold-up beds that refuse to stay unfolded. There is a likably witty piece with Judy Davis trying to get aboard Connolly’s boat as he leaves a jetty but this is not really a slapstick film. You can also see that the central role has been tailored to fit the presence of Connolly, who at least rises to form and gives a likable variant on his irascible, foul-mouthed Scotsman persona. (Although while one can accept him as a fisherman, it does strain credibility accepting such a character as a former lawyer).

Where the film falls down altogether is the ending. While it aspires to mount a satiric attack on religious institutions, it falters at its height with the sudden, presumedly miraculous, appearance at the end of a dove as though it were a heavenly messenger. It is a cloyingly maudlin and banal way for such a film to go out on. The effect is akin to an embittered crank atheist undergoing a sudden deathbed conversion and getting all mushy-eyed about love, children and the beauty of life. Sadly, what the film seems to miss in such a moment of transcendent religious mummery is the satiric note the scene is underscored with that has everybody reacting with religious awe to the appearance of a dove which, as the defence counsel points out, is only a cockatoo. In playing it straight-faced, the film turns whatever satiric ire it may have raised throughout into the corniest kind of religious sentimentalism.

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