Monday, August 8, 2016

#2,167. In God We Trust (1980)

Directed By: Marty Feldman

Starring: Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Louise Lasser

Tag line: "This is Brother Ambrose. Lead him not into temptation. For he's sure to follow"

Trivia: To prepare for his role as Aramgeddon T. Thunderbird, Andy Kaufman practiced preaching on city streets

Apparently, I was one of the very few people who caught Marty Feldman’s In God We Trust on the big screen. My father took my brother and I, as well as a friend of ours, to see it one night in the fall of 1980, and we laughed our heads off. Alas, not many shared our enthusiasm for the movie; In God We Trust was a box-office dud. Its failure to find an audience may have had something to do with its subject matter (organized religion), and the various comedic jabs that Feldman and company took at televangelism. I remember my father telling us afterwards that In God We Trust was “blasphemous” (which I thought was kinda strange, seeing as he laughed as much as the rest of us), so it’s possible the film was labeled as such, and the faithful stayed away in droves.

Of course, the fact that In God We Trust is only sporadically funny, with more jokes that fall flat than hit their mark, might have turned people off as well. But we’ll get to that in a minute… 

Brother Ambrose (Feldman) is a monk who has spent his entire life in a mountaintop monastery. Yet, despite his inexperience with the outside world, the head Brother, Abbot Thelonious (Wilfrid Hyde-White), assigns Ambrose to a very important task. It seems the order needs $5,000 to pay its mortgage, and therefore must send someone to Los Angeles to meet with Armageddon T. Thunderbird (Andy Kaufman), a television evangelist and the leader of the CDP (Church of Divine Profit) Network. Once Mr. Thunderbird learns of their plight, it’s believed he’ll turn the money over immediately, thus saving the Monastery from foreclosure.

With the help of Mary (Louise Lasser), a prostitute; and Dr. Sebastian Melmoth (Peter Boyle), a traveling preacher who has transformed a school bus into a church on wheels, Ambrose does, indeed, sit down and talk with Armageddon, who, it turns out, has a direct line for talking to God (played by Richard Pryor). The question is, how far will Ambrose go to get the money he needs? Is he willing to sell his soul for it?

I know what you’re asking: Did I really laugh my head off when I first saw In God We Trust? Absolutely! But keep in mind: I was only 10 years old at the time (weeks away from my 11th birthday), and my taste in comedy was… well, let’s say it was “under-developed”. At that point, I had not yet been introduced to Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Monty Python, The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Steve Martin, Cheech and Chong, or the plethora of other screen comedians who would help shape my sense of humor in the decades to come. Hell, I didn’t even get to see Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, or Animal House until the following year, when we finally got cable. So, sure, the slapstick routines that Feldman concocted for In God We Trust seemed completely fresh to me at the time (he begins early, with a pratfall involving a split door at the monastery, followed immediately by a run-in with a stubborn “Silence” sign). Had I known how much his physical comedy (including a couple of dangerous stunts later in the film) owed to Keaton, Chaplin, and the like, I probably wouldn’t have been as impressed.

What is impressive, though, is this movie's cast. Along with writing and directing, Feldman plays Brother Ambrose, and is quite convincing as a naïve monk set loose in Los Angeles. Also good is Louise Lasser as Mary, the hooker with a heart of gold (her first encounter with Brother Ambrose leads to one of the movie’s better sight gags). The romance that develops between the two is well-handled, making the film, at least in part, a romantic comedy.

That said, the real stand-outs are the three supporting players. Peter Boyle (Feldman’s co-star in Young Frankenstein) is damn funny as Sebastian Melmoth, proprietor and chief reverend of a mobile church and seller of religious-themed novelty items, like the Levitating Lazarus Doll (“Watch him rise from the dead in the privacy of your own home”). Whether preaching or stumbling around drunk, Boyle’s character gets some of the movie’s biggest laughs, as does Andy Kaufman as Armageddon T. Thunderbird, the bleach-haired televangelist who has his own special hotline for communicating with God. Kaufman goes over-the-top with his performance, yet is so dynamic when he’s on-screen that you can’t look away. Rounding out the group is Richard Pryor as God, or at least the computer manifestation of God (his actual moniker is G.O.D., which stands for "General Organisational Directivator"). A late scene, where Brother Ambrose reads the bible to G.O.D., is a definite highlight.

With a cast like this, and a subject that was ripe for the picking (television evangelists were all the rage In the ‘70s and ‘80s), it’s a shame In God We Trust isn’t funnier than it is. But with so much slapstick crammed in, as well as a handful of chase scenes that go nowhere, Feldman simply wasn’t aiming high enough with the humor. There are brief moments of comedic brilliance that pop up from time to time, including the scene where Ambrose lands a job with a religious trinkets manufacturer, and is assigned the task of nailing little Jesus statues onto a cross (Ambrose finds it so distressing that he has to wash his hands after each one he builds). But sequences like this are few and far-between, and when you consider that Feldman got his start on British T.V. (in the late ‘60s he co-wrote and co-starred in At Last the 1948 Show with Python alums John Cleese and Graham Chapman), and that his cinematic influence was Mel Brooks (along with playing Igor in Young Frankenstein, Feldman had a major role in Silent Movie), this film should have been amazing.

I still think it’s worth a watch. The cast, as I said, is excellent, and I like how the movie used Harry Nillson’s hilarious ditty “Good for God” (it plays over the credits and at several intervals throughout the film). But odds are you won’t come away thinking In God We Trust is comedy gold.

Unless you’re 10 years old, in which case you’ll probably love it.

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