Film Scouts Reviews

"God Said 'Ha!'"

by Karen Jaehne

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This performance piece is Sweeney's own talk therapy for a grim year of her life when her brother lay dying, her parents - with good intentions and bad taste - moved into her apartment, and she herself was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Prior to this series of catastrophes, Sweeney was on top of the world, what with her success on Saturday Night Live, an amicable divorce from her husband and the purchase of her dream house. But there is no stasis, and change just brought one disaster after another, all of which Sweeney manages to shape into a funny vision of life in L.A. - where all things are sunny and perfect.

The tight 88-minute tale is the result of her working her material in the heat of crisis by going off to an alternative night club in Los Angeles called The Unacaberet at Luna Park. When a producer approached her about turning it into a feature film, they explored many possibilities, but in the end, Julia's performance was the most powerful aspect of the show, so they decided to film it as a performance piece rather than opening it up as a dramatic feature.

Ms. Sweeney's comedic talents - honed as "Pat" on Saturday Night Live - hold her in good stead, as she mimics her mother's downhome dismissal of pasta as nothing more than noodles or her father's stalwart silence as both of his children lay before him struck with cancer. It is a potentially desperate situation, and the use of it as comedy shows how far we've come as a society to accept illness as simply a transient set-back, for which laughter is the best medicine. Certainly, when Julia gets to the point where her brother Michael dies, we're not prepared for that awful truth, because we've been laughing about the embarrassing process of being sick, which brings vulnerability and dependence and all those things that intrinsically are not humorous, but rather sad.

To be sure, the dread fatal illnesses aren't whispered about anymore, as in "the big C," which was once a token of superstitious hangovers (so well explored in Susan Sontag's classic work "Illness as Metaphor"). There is no metaphoric level in Sweeney's tale. We marvel, in some sense, that she finds humor in the banality of what we do when we're sick: fevers, vomiting, laying around in front of the tv half-delirious from the drugs.

And yet she has a need to tell us - down to the last detail - about the painful experience of battling someone else's cancer and then her own. One can only assume it helps. If this is part of Sweeney's therapy, then she has implicated us in her recovery to such a degree that our failure to laugh or to sympathize or simply to accompany her on this 88-minute reverie is to deny her a major element in her recovery - public acceptance and human sympathy.

Then I have to go one step farther and ask (as a cancer-survivor, myself) why? Why do we feel the need to take our illness public? Is this an act of heroism - proof of having conquered the worst threat imaginable? Is it a hopeful act of sharing, that we can feel all the more alive for making an altruistic gesture that extends our hope and our actions and our victory to others who might face the same threat? Is it life asserting itself again, like some manic version of that old Hollywood saw: it's not can you make it, but can you make a come-back? Perhaps it's very simple: we talk about our illness for the same reasons we talk at all; communication with another human being makes us feel connected, while simultaneously asserting our individuality of expression.

Of course, cancer is a special kind of illness - not something one actually ever recovers from. It is there as a spectre in your life forever, so the need to find its humorous potential is very strong and possibly the only way to undercut its power over its victims. Laugh, as the cliche goes, and the world laughs with you. We know that has not always been the case, which is why shows like "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" or "God Said, Ha!" are necessary - to counter the sappy pity of "Love Story" and "One True Thing." Weeping over cancer is the cliche; so laughing at it is a form of surprise relief.

Sweeney's humor is based on characters that she can inhabit to an unsettling degree. She gives them embarrassing traits and unsettles us with their proximity. She has done the same thing with cancer - brought it close for a queasy examination, then laughed at its oddities without dispelling it. At the end of the film, it's the cancer that's still there - that we all know never goes away - that keeps the audience quiet and in their seats an extra moment or two, as if they need to be reassured that, hey! It's only a movie.

Or when God said, "Ha!" She didn't mean it.

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