Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cool Ass Comedies: In God We Trust (1980) review


Marty Feldman (Brother Ambrose), Peter Boyle (Sebastian Melmoth), Louise Lasser (Mary), Wilfred hyde-White (Abbot Thelonius), Richard Pryor (G.O.D.), Andy Kaufman (Armageddon T. Thunderbird)

Directed by Marty Feldman

"...You made me in your own image, didn't you? I can't imagine you looking like that somehow..."

The Short Version: Bug-eyed Marty Feldman's second and last directing gig was a failed, if ambitious comedy curio that is likely of far more interest now than it was then. It's a satirical, sometimes playfully blasphemous look into the world of the evangelical scammers that garnered notoriety in the 1980s. When it isn't bombarding the viewer with funny and unfunny pratfall hijinks and numerous sight gags, it's preaching a political message in between moonlighting as a romantic comedy. Atheists and Agnostics won't be converted and open minded Christians may even be swayed into a giggle or two. So Sayeth Cool Ass Cinema.

Sent outside the temple to raise money for the monastery's mortgage payment, the naive and inexperienced Brother Ambrose ends up in Los Angeles. There he finds many sights unseen to his virginal, unworldly eyes. After being picked up by an evangelical charlatan driving around in a bus fashioned into a mobile church, Ambrose meets a kindly hooker who guides him through this strange new world on his way to meet another religious conman, Armageddon T. Thunderbird.

Marty Feldman's best known movie out of the two he directed is one that has been buried in obscurity for decades and remembered by a cult of fans that possibly saw it for the first time on cable television in the early 1980s. A major box office bomb, it died a quick death and failed to rise on the third day.

Many found it grossly offensive back in the day, and it would most likely be found offensive now. Feldman paints a blackly humorous portrait of the greedy commercialization of organized religion that was eventually exposed for the monetary racket it was at the time. A 1977 episode of SANFORD & SON also parodied the hypocritical razzamatazz that pulled many a Houdini on gullible people's purses and wallets. Incidentally, the church racket in that episode was called 'The Divine Profit Church'. For Feldman's movie, the words are switched around to 'The Church of the Divine Profit'.

"By the way, I think I love you... do you mind?" 


Feldman must have worshiped this project as he not only directed and starred in it, but also wrote it. If that weren't enough, he even performs some dangerous Keatonesque stunts in the film. However, he seems to have sat out a portion of the big chase scene at the end where he's on a skateboard being pulled by a truck carrying a speed boat. If you look closely, you can see a stuntman wearing a Feldman mask in a couple of shots. 

For the most part, the comedy is very uneven, filled with lots of pratfall moments and sight gags. Some work, many do not; but when the funny bits work, they're hilarious. It's obvious Feldman put a lot of work into it and the Mel Brooks touch is apparent; or at least the Mel Brooks of the late 80s onward. Feldman will possibly be best remembered on North American shores for his performance as Igor in Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974).

"Step right up, sinners! Take a miracle home with you! Get your own Levitating Lazarus Doll! See him rise from the dead in the privacy of your own home!"

IN GOD WE TRU$T also sports another YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN alumni in Peter Boyle. Boyle is one of the best characters in this movie. He gets a great many memorable lines and most of these will likely be found offensive by Christians. Boyle spouts off expletive enhanced biblical jargon and even does a ventriloquist act with a dummy Moses aboard his battle scarred bus fashioned into a church on wheels!

After Melmoth rips him off a couple of times (in some of the films funnier bits), he and Ambrose form a partnership that ends quickly so as to move on to the romantic comedy subplot between Ambrose and Louise Lasser's character. She, too, provides some religious offensiveness in that she plays a prostitute named Mary. One scene in the movie has her backlit while standing in a doorway signifying Christian iconography. This precedes Ambrose having to run and take a cold shower after becoming preoccupied with her "bumpy bits".

"...Gawd is in the hospital! And do you know who put him there?! Y-O-U!"

The other major stand out character is that of Armageddon T. Thunderbird, devilishly played by controversial comic, Andy Kaufman. This was his first major role and Kaufman (who'd already appeared as a killer cop in GOD TOLD ME TO in 1976) gobbled up as much scenery as possible. It was as if his life depended on it. 

Nearly every scene with Kaufman is magnetic, forcing all eyes on him. Speaking of eyes, Thunderbird's orbs are constantly threatening to fall from their sockets. Kaufman revels in the flamboyance of his maniacal mannerisms, golden pompadour and over the top drawl. The scenes with him emerging onstage wearing a cape echo the similar carnival theatrics of professional wrestling; a sport Kaufman was fascinated with, and took part in during the early 1980s. During this time in his career, he stirred up lots of heat for wrestling women and getting bitchslapped on Letterman and piledriven by Jerry Lawler.

This blashpemism in Feldman's movie, as playful as it is, was no doubt biting to Christians and believers of the day. Looking back, it's a reminder of just how big of an enterprise the hucksters of the holy book were back then despite Marjoe Gortner famously outing the hypocrisy of evangelism with his award winning documentary in the early 1970s

While these scenes with Kaufman's character are the major highlight, it also leaves a bitter taste in the mouth knowing that the elderly and easily beguiled in the audience seen tossing their lifesaving's into Thunderbird's coffers was an all too real occurrence.

"Haul thy ass aboard!"

Still, Boyle's character of Sebastian Melmoth is the blasphemer of the bunch while Thunderbird is merely a reflection of a harsh reality that far too many fell victim to. It's also ironic that both characters are far more interesting than Feldman's monastic outcast.

Some of these wholly (haha) offensive moments include Ambrose getting a job at a Christian novelty company where he works an assembly line nailing Jesus figurines to wooden crosses. Can I get an Amen?

Sebastian Melmoth's game of 'Find the Lord' consists of a chip with a cross painted on it hidden inside of one of three coconuts. Findeth the lord and try thy luck for a lousy buck.

Armageddon T. Thunderbird's outrageous burlesque show at the end has him giving one of his speeches in a comically exaggerated Southern drawl that emphasizes the words 'Seek' and 'heal' to the point that when his "followers" begin repeating his mantra, it sounds like 'Sieg Heil' -- fist pumping included. Hallelujah.

IN GOD WE TRU$T has yet to be released on DVD in America, but did garner a release on videocassette in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, VHS copies are missing the main theme song by Harry Nilsson, 'Good For God'; it being replaced by a different tune. In 2011, the film was put out on disc in the UK. The cable version of the film is complete.

"Who feedeth the hungry? Is it mana from heaven, or fried chicken from Kentucky? Who clotheth the naked? Is it JC, or JC Penny?"

The problem with IN GOD WE TRU$T is it wants to be too many things at once, and fails at what it's supposed to be -- a comedy. Feldman's picture wants to poke fun of evangelism, carry a political theme on its shoulders and periodically morph into a romantic comedy. It does two of these quite well. It's often touching in some of the scenes between Ambrose and Mary, although the politics become heavy handed at times. The one area where it fails to be consistent is in the comedy. There's lots of it, just these are only intermittently humorous when they should be more harmonious. Have faith thine followers. Feldman's final film behind the camera shall maketh its way to DVD before ye find divine providence. So sayeth Cool Ass Cinema.
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