One feels rather churlish criticizing this one woman show by Julia Sweeney about her and her brother’s struggles with cancer. But to be honest, it’s weak in several respects.
God Said, “Ha!” is a filmed stage play, and feels like it. Sweeney is simply not a skilled monologist. She sounds like she’s reciting memorized lines, her body language is wooden and unnatural, and her range of “funny voices” is pretty close to zero.
I never got into Spaulding Gray’s monologues in a big way, but just in terms of skills in that format, it’s like night and day. The conversational delivery, the natural demeanor, the smoothness, the timing he manifested in a film like Swimming to Cambodia is utterly lacking here.
Or think Richard Pryor, and the more autobiographical portions of his celebrated concert films. Sweeney is not in the same league as a performer for material of this style.
There’s also something annoying about the camerawork. The whole film consists of Sweeney on stage, but the camera moves around awkwardly to where she always seems to be almost but not quite looking at it.
So she’s not really playing to the camera directly, but on the other hand it doesn’t feel like she’s playing to a live audience either. There’s no give and take; nothing in her tone or style alters in response to audience reaction. It’s like she’s not talking to them or us, but is alone on stage rehearsing.
That whole audience thing is a mystery in itself. During the opening titles there are a couple of brief shots of an audience filing in. At the end of the film, the camera pulls back and shows the theater (or at least the first few rows) is empty.
In between, you can indeed hear audience laughter in response to her monologue, but it sounds for all the world like a laugh track. So my impression is she did her routine alone and they later added canned laughs.
Which just further adds to the overall feeling of awkwardness and artificiality.
And the material is mostly not as funny as she seems to think it is. Only once in a blue moon does she say something that struck me as genuinely witty. (Example: She’s told by her doctor that before they do surgery that might damage her ovaries, they have the option of removing twelve of her eggs for possible artificial insemination later. “Why twelve?” she wonders, “Because they’re eggs?”)
The humor does play an important role in balancing out the very serious subject matter, keeping the film from being simply grim and depressing. But little if any of it could stand on its own as comedy, taken out of this context and just used in a stand-up routine, for instance. Not saying the antics of her overbearing parents aren’t worth a smile here and there, but neither in content nor delivery does the humor in this movie rise above the level of a non-headliner at a backwater comedy club.
The serious material works a lot better. Though even here I don’t think it’s delivered all that well. It’s still wooden, still staged.
There are parts of this film that are genuinely moving due to the content, but that’s in spite of the delivery.
I was struck by how controlled she is the whole time, even at seemingly the most emotional points. Heck, I got a little choked up a couple of times from what she was talking about, whereas she, who actually experienced it and is now up on a stage reliving it, seemingly never does.
Well, I guess when you’ve rehearsed this countless times, and you’ve delivered it to an audience as a stage play for years, you get to where you can recite all the words without breaking down.
But is that something to strive for?
I can imagine her after a performance like this patting herself on the back for being professional enough to remain in control the whole time, strong enough to never be overcome by emotion.
Except to me I don’t think it’s weakness to struggle with this material. I think it’s real and human and establishes more of a connection with the audience. If she had had to pause here and there to collect herself because the emotions were getting a little too intense, if her voice had cracked trying to tell about her brother’s death, I wouldn’t disrespect that as weak. To me that would mean she’s digging deep and sharing with us not just what happened, but the emotions of what happened.
But for all I’ve said about its imperfections, overall I still have to give a thumbs up to this film. Because what I like about it is more important than everything I dislike about it put together.
The film is the story of a somewhat dysfunctional family that ultimately responds to horrible circumstances—one sibling’s fatal cancer and another’s non-fatal cancer—with admirable, indeed inspiring, grace, courage, and good humor.
Sweeney doesn’t shy away from sharing some of the more unpleasant physical details, nor the emotional devastation of the story. Her comedic sense to me isn’t top rate, but the very fact that she and her family were able to find moments of humor at all is impressive.
And her sense for finding just the right serious observation is sharper. Like her mother allowing herself to cry at night when she thinks she’s alone, contemplating the imminent death of her son. Or her brother in a rare, out of character moment asking the “What did I do to deserve this?” question. Or the realization that while seeming comically inept and insensitive on the surface, her parents substantively proved incredibly strong and functional.
There are elements to this monologue that are heartrending in their honesty and depth.
If you were going through something like this, you’d want someone like her and her family to help you through it, with their strength and their humor. It doesn’t matter that it’s not A-level humor. The fact that they’re staying in good spirits as best they can, and trying to find the lighter side of the experiences at all is what’s important.
I come away from God Said, “Ha!” not thinking of Julia Sweeney the performer, the comedian, as any better than ordinary. But I come away from it very much liking and respecting Julia Sweeney the human being.