1996, PG, 109 min. Directed by Garry Marshall. Starring Greg Kinnear, Laurie Metcalf, Maria Pitillo, Tim Conway, Roscoe Lee Browne, Jon Seda, Hector Elizondo, Jack Klugman, Coolio.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 8, 1996
It's like getting the crap beaten out of you by an over-zealous department store Santa who just whap! wants whap! you whap! to appreciate whap whap whap! the spirit of Christmas whappity whap whap whap! That's as good a description as any for this embarrassingly heavy-handed descent into the nightmarish maelstrom of feel-good cinema that comes on stronger than a speed-crazed pitbull with its tail on fire. The first in Hollywood's annual wave of forceful holiday cheer, Dear God isn't just the title of Marshall's film, it's also the mantra you find yourself repeating endlessly in the theatre, praying for surcease from this treacly travesty as it unspools relentlessly before your eyes. I can readily visualize Alex from A Clockwork Orange being brainwashed by something like this sort of pap. It's not that difficult. Former E! Entertainment television shill and all-around nice guy Kinnear is Tom Turner, a Hollywood bottom-feeder who pulls minor-league scams on tourists in a desperate attempt to pay off his increasingly noisome loan shark. When Turner is busted by the LAPD's bunko squad, the judge gives him a choice: Get a nine-to-five job like the citizens you've been bilking, and hold ii for no less than a year, or go to jail. Turner's reaction -- “Nine to five? Isn't that a bit excessive?” -- is pretty much how we all feel on any given day, but he takes the bait anyway, and soon finds himself whiling away the hours at a United States Post Office branch, trapped in the dreary confines of the basement Dead Letter Office. Surrounded by an archetypal bunch of affable losers (Conway as ready-to-snap Herman Dooly, Roseanne's Metcalf as a frayed ex-attorney, Elizondo as a Russian immigrant supervisor), Turner at first tries his usual scams, but to no avail. While poking around one day, he comes across a trove of letters addressed to God (see title), most of which were written by starving, homeless, and generally desperate people in need a break. Why they're entrusting the USPS to get their letters all the way to God instead of, say, Ed McMahon, is a question never fully explored here, but then I suppose weighty moral and theosophical questions have never been director Marshall's forte. Suffice to say, Turner and his band of misfits conceive a plan to take the cash and valuables the post office has hoarded in the DLO and send them to those poor folks writing to God on a weekly basis. You get the picture. Kinnear was rarely so smarmy on TV as he is here: He may be a swell guy in real life, but I'd still like to wipe that aw-shucks grin off his face with a barbed-wire weedwhacker, given half a chance. Marshall, for his part, directs with precious little style or economy -- everything is fired directly into your face as if from some moralistic howitzer o' brotherly love, which, let's face it, leaves you feeling decidedly uncharitable. I'm no grinch, and I enjoy the holiday season as much as the next guy, but Dear God is a mess: manipulative, hollow, and more than a little off-putting, it's the greasy, self-serving flip-side to Miracle on 34th Street (the original).