Pray tell

Pub date November 24, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

FILM Oh My God? took the words right outta my mouth about 10 minutes in. It was then clear this "multicultural spiritual quest" about religion worldwide illustrated the three worst trends in contemporary nonfiction filmmaking: the gratuitously first person vanity project; the Koyaanisqatsi (1982) school of globetrotting coffee-table pictorialism; and the "These are important questions. Let’s ask a celebrity for answers!" tactic.

Shot in 23 countries, God?‘s luxury do-gooderism might not compensate for its carbon imprint in any judgmental afterlife. The opening montage of Stuff ‘Round the World is meant to dazzle with the breadth of human experience. Instead, such expensive flash raises a red flag: who funded this? De Beers? Exxon Mobil?

Perhaps writer-producer-director Peter Rodger did himself, being maestro of "numerous car, clothing, and cosmetics companies’ print and commercial campaigns in over 40 countries." That explains a lot. The world is so cluttered with striking images — MTV, advertising, and computer graphics have rendered mere visual brilliance trivial. What’s rare now is the providing of context that makes a picture meaningful.

"Truth is being diluted by too many voices all keen to reference the name of God. But what exactly is God? I decided to go around the world and ask people what they think," Rodger says at the start. Albeit not before Hugh Jackman has brushed his chestnut mane back to announce "God is unexplainable!" Whoa. Why is he here? Rodger presumably lives in that fabulous A-list bubble where success is understood to impart wisdom. Because what can’t money buy?

Oh My God? also includes philosophic two cents from Baz Luhrmann, Seal, Ringo Starr, HRH Princess Michael of Kent, and Sir Bob Geldof. (What, no Bono?) These celebs have zero special to say, but are top-billed — unlike the spiritual leaders, leading academics, and mere proles whose profoundities were likely left on the cutting-room floor.

The movie does have plenty of time for Peter Rodger, our intrepid host for no obvious reason. Surely it doesn’t require his onscreen presence to ask questions like "If God really does exist, why does he permit so much suffering in the world?" We certainly don’t need him to call lingering Katrina devastation "pretty sad," a sentiment as trite as the quick cutaway from some New Orleans kids’ very moving statements is offensive.

Shooting with a real eye for travelogue imagery (sometimes at actual tourist events), Rodgers reduces animal-sacrificing African Maasai tribalists ("very colorful people"), Arizona Native Americans (tribe unidentified), Balinese Hindu priests, and more to exotic dress extras in a 93-minute music video scored by Alexander van Bubenheim as one long world beat mixtape. Tonal slants are predictable: born-again Texans = funny/bad; Tibetan monks = serene/good. OMG indeed.

As in so much human history, the use and abuse of religious ideas now urgently affects us all. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein notes (in a rare moment of permitted garrulousness), "The problem with religion today is that there’s just enough of it for people to learn to hate each other, but not enough to learn to love each other."

Yet Oh My God?‘s Babel of glancingly sampled opinions is just more contradictory noise — a pu pu platter of empty-calorie pictorialism and half-formed big questions at no risk of meaningful exploration. Like that modern lit classic Eat Pray Love, it wrassles eternal issues of being and meaning into the feel-good hollow address of rich people’s problems.

OH MY GOD? opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters.