Well, you win some and you lose some. The Prize turned out to be a stinker. It just went on and on without much of interest happening. What I do with a movie like this is first put it on life support. I’ll keep it running in the background while I surf the web on my tablet. If anything interesting happens, I can look up and perhaps get re-engaged. That never happend.
So I moved onto the 1963 Peter Sellers flick, Heavens Above! I had modest expectations for this film. Screwball British comedies that try to be funny, but aren’t, are a dime a dozen.
This one wasn’t a screwball comedy as much as it was a social satire that was occasionally funny. At this point in his career, it’s likely audiences were ready to laugh at a Sellers character no matter what. He puts on a wig, adopts a plastic persona of a mild-mannered preacher, and I’m sure British audiences were rolling in the aisles.
Sellers’ next film would be the reasonably good “The Wrong Arm of the Law,” followed by the movie and character that would define his career: “The Pink Panther.” This would be followed by the masterful “Dr. Strangelove” wherein Sellers really does flesh out three distinct characters and isn’t simply putting on a wig and getting cheap laughs from an easy audience.
In Heavens Above! Sellers tries to play a mild-mannered and Biblically authentic preacher more akin to Jesus than a tele-evangelist. He speaks softly but usually very bluntly. Upon being (accidentally) appointed to his current parish, Reverend John Smallwood makes the rounds and knocks on the doors of dozens of his parishioners just to get the lay of the land.
He’s confronted will indifference and all kinds of reasons that people don’t go to church although they assure him they are devout Christians (or why they aren't Christians). Having taken the lay of the land, Sellers in his first sermon says something like, “And I’ve found there aren’t enough real Christians in the parish to feed a lion.”
With the recent doings of the Catholic Church in mind, none of the satire seems at all exaggerated. The archdeacon who mistakenly appointed John Smallwood (Sellers) to this parish isn’t there to know that there has been a mixup (as Sellers notes, this was the first time he was ever accused of being a “clerical error”). He’s off in the Mediterranean on a bishop’s yacht. Upon his return he remarks to one of his bishop friends something like, “I was lying naked in the sun on the yacht when I realized that the rich have a much easier time living the authentic Christian life of simplicity.”
I probably just listed all of the overt laughs in the movie. Most is subtle satire that doesn’t rise to the level of a guffaw. Reviews at IMDB are mixed regarding what this movie's point it. Well, I would say an authentic Christian could watch this without being offended. After all, Sellers as Reverend Smallwood is sincerely trying to carry out the words of the bible. And the problems he runs into do not seem like a flaw in the bible as much as how impractical biblical ideas are in the face of human nature.
You would never see a movie made today where “the poor” are seen for what they often are: moochers, vagabonds, and vulgarians. When the good Reverend wins over a rich lady of the town, he’s able to implement a plan to give away food to the needy. Soon “the needy” are everyone who previously had been shopping at the local merchants. The local merchants are then all but forced to close up shop.
We see “the poor” arguing amongst themselves after having gotten their “free stuff” about who got too much, etc. In many ways, the movie is way ahead of its time because this is the exact reality that anyone faces when they give out “free stuff.” It is not gratitude that is engendered. And it is not simply "the poor" who are the recipients of charity.
After making these points, the movie doesn’t know what to do with itself. It tacks on a weird Reverend-in-space ending that makes sense only in the context of the frequent poverty of satire. If you skewer everything and everyone, you have nothing much left. So instead of trying to come to some conclusion, the reverend sneaks his way onto a spaceship being sent into space. The end. And, yes, that makes as little sense as it sounds.
Still, the movie was entertaining enough to stay with it. It was honest in the sense that, indeed, authentic Christianity is much too impractical to live out, at least on a society-wide basis. It’s easy to see how and why church hierarchies becomes so worldly. And what purpose is left for religion in the face of the welfare state (or even the pharmaceutical state which promises to alleviate every bad feeling)? But some of this you have to read in for yourself. The movie doesn’t have the depth or daring to try to come to any conclusion, thus the escape-hatch of Sellers-in-space. I think with a different actor playing the lead (or Sellers more fully fleshing out the character instead of playing him as a plastic dullard) would have helped. But there is a certain charm to his simple plasticity.
The problem that those writing satire often face is having something to say other than the unsaying or skewering of everything and everybody. Having little to no point-of-view, you’re left having eaten cardboard as a light snack. And much of the satire in this movie is in the various signage shown on screen. Most of it is of the intellectual and emotional level of a juvenile which prohibits this film from having much depth.