The Man Who Sued God is being advertised to the Australian public as a comedy. This seems easy enough to believe, since the film stars Billy Connolly, one of the world’s funniest men. However, The Man Who Sued God, despite good intentions, the film, quite simply, is boringly predictable, poorly written and amateurishly directed. Connolly’s appearance overshadows the film’s serious subject matter: a man who puts the Lord on trial and subsequently challenges the authority and rituals of the Church and its many factions.
Connolly plays Steve Myers, a former lawyer turned full-time fisherman whose boat is destroyed by lightning. His insurers are refusing to pay for the damage citing the loss as an Act of God. Steve’s ex-wife Jules’s (Wendy Hughes) new husband (Blair Venn) had been guarantor on the boat and as a result of the loss, is out over $150,000 and stands to lose his caravan park. Steve decides that if an Act of God destroyed his boat, then God should be held responsible. He soon finds himself headlining the “trial of the century,” battling both his insurance company and a variety of Holy representatives (a priest, a cardinal, a rabbi) in court. Put simply, Steve needs to convince the court that God either does not exist, or if He does, that he (or the combined Church heads, as his representatives) should pay up, as He would be responsible for these “acts” which have cost not only Steve, but also many others, their hard-earned savings.
While the idea is an intriguing one, writer John Clarke and director Mark Joffe rely far too much on boring external situations, including a romance between Steve and his hired help, journalist Anna (Judy Davis), and her ridiculously convoluted reasons for assisting Steve with his case. The fast-paced dialogue evident in the courtroom grinds to a halt anywhere outside of it, used only to develop stereotypical characters in obvious situations. These include the possibility of Jules picking up and moving with her husband and Steve’s daughter to Perth (why do down-on-their-luck Aussie always have to move either to Perth or the Gold Coast to make a fresh start?), and the tension between Steve and his lawyer brother, David (Colin Friels, with a dead-on Scottish accent).
Clarke and Joffe also make sure the audience is on Steve’s side from the outset. They have structured their story to portray the insurance company bigwigs as greedy shysters (led by one Mr Piggott [John Howard]), and a bunch of buffoonish clergymen as the opposition, leaving little room to wonder as to who is right and who is wrong. What’s worse, this leaves the “does He or doesn’t He exist?” debate more one-sided than it could have been. The idea of a man suing the Church and his insurance company simultaneously — one may say God and the Devil — is in itself fascinating, and needn’t have been set against such a foolish background.
Adding to the silliness is Clarke and Joffe’s reliance on an annoyingly tedious formal structure (using montage after montage to move their story along) and a deafening mood-directing soundtrack that rarely lets up (during funny scenes, the soundtrack is jovial and upbeat, but when things look grim, we hear either choirs dramatically singing or just that ping-ping-pong of a sullen piano).
Equally unsubtle is the visual comparison between a church’s interior, with a crucifix overseeing all, and the courtroom, with a bearded judge seated up front doing the same. Stained-glass windows featuring the words “faith,” “hope,” and “charity” introduce each new act, and we are repeatedly shown the overwhelming wealth of the different churches (Steve is at one point seen marveling at the architecture inside a synagogue), for no other reason than to make sure we stay on Steve’s side through to the end.
And yet this premise also allows the aspect that makes the film different (and maybe a little daring): when all is said and done, the Church and its “employees” (including the always wondrous Vincent Ball as the Cardinal) are hardly ever shown in a good light. They are often seen, in fact, to be just as devious as the lawyers and Steve’s insurance company.
Still, Steve eventually comes to the realisation that God had nothing to do with what happened to his boat. And so, he reinforces to the crowded courtroom that faith is what one makes of it, individually and without unnecessary persuasion. His conclusion follows dopey attempts by his opposition to argue with him, making them look like rookies with no idea how to argue such a large case, which could see a legal precedent set, one that might, say, allow God into the legal system.