What’s the Deal With Tumors? Sweeney Lives to Laugh About It

Julia Sweeney’s God Said, “Ha!” represents that rare fusion of life and art that detonates on the screen with an absolute minimum of formal and technical contrivance. It comes from the heart and mind as directly as anything I have seen in years in any medium. At a time when mainstream Hollywood seems mesmerized by mindless special effects, it is good to be reminded that the ultimate sources of the greatest narrative, dramatic and cinematic works are the inexhaustible varieties of human experience as filtered through the writing, directing and performing sensibilities of a comparative handful of truly creative individuals.

Ms. Sweeney has done nothing less than transform a riotously troubled piece of her life into a jewel of seriocomic performance art that transcends the self-imposed scenic limitations of the traditional stand-up routine. The provocative title of the piece is derived from a friend’s condolence card sent in her time of troubles. The card repeated an old Yiddish saying, If you want to make God laugh, make plans. And Ms. Sweeney’s misadventures in the 90’s have supplied her with ample material for an extended whine. Yet this screechy form of self-pity never invades her indomitable ebullience even in the midst of chaos and adversity. Two malignant diagnoses are not merely endured, but actually engulfed in a flood of family love and personal wit and courage.

Not too long ago, Ms. Sweeney thought she had it made in the shade when she purchased a Los Angeles dream house, following an amicable divorce from her husband and a graceful exit from a successful three-year stint on Saturday Night Live , most notably as her own androgynous creation, Pat. Then her brother came down with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and moved in with her, and her concerned parents followed. Her “dream house” became a nightmarish deluge of déjà vu s. Ms. Sweeney found herself regressing to adolescent stratagems to protect her adult privacy, and such acquired vices as smoking and “fooling around with her boyfriend.” She was even forced to defend such culinary perversions as what her mother described as “fancy spaghetti sauce.”

This is all comic relief and a prelude to Ms. Sweeney’s disheartening discovery that she herself had come down with cervical cancer, a setback that would be intolerable for an audience to bear were it not for Ms. Sweeney’s inimitable brand of gallows humor. The film actually evolved from a series of real-life rants that Ms. Sweeney delivered at an alternative comedy club called the Uncabaret at Luna Park in West Hollywood. At first her objective was to audition for local television shows around Los Angeles, but the audiences for her live performance grew larger and more enthusiastic to the point that her comically orchestrated wail of woe became an end in itself.

Polishing and perfecting her show as she went along, Ms. Sweeney opened God Said, “Ha!” live at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, in January 1996, and it ran for three months to capacity audiences. God Said, “Ha!” then played at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles, and ran for four months, six shows a week, to full houses. The opportunity to make her onetime rant into a movie came when her friend Quentin Tarantino tipped off producer Rana Joy Glickman. The wheels were set in motion and certain options were explored. In the end, it was decided that Ms. Sweeney would perform the piece on camera twice, with different studio audiences each time. Leaflets were scattered around town to get a crowd of extras who were not too show-biz-savvy. A suggestion that the show be taken out of doors a bit was eventually rejected. What emerges instead is a theater performance made subtly cinematic by camera close-ups and unobtrusive movements to bring the movie audience closer to the single protagonist at the moments of crisis and climax.

I cannot recommend God Said, “Ha!” highly enough without beginning to sound like a Sweeney sycophant from back in her Saturday Night Live days. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pat, her signature androgynous character, struck me from the beginning as a limited comic concept with very little staying power. Actually, what Ms. Sweeney has achieved in her career is to come out from under the ponderous weight of Pat to reveal the graceful wit and whimsy of a blithe spirit full of womanly and sisterly love. Ms. Sweeney is an existential heroine with the capacity to transform a damaged piece of her life into poetry, and family drama into high pathos.

Point Blank Is the Payback

Brian Helgeland’s Payback , from a screenplay by Mr. Helgeland and Terry Hayes, based on the novel The Hunter , by Richard Stark, turns out to be an elaborately misguided remake of John Boorman’s cult gangster classic, Point Blank . Interestingly enough, the 32-year-old original is more erotic and less violent at its core than the remake. Production gossip has it that superstar Mel Gibson took Mr. Helgeland off the picture near the end of shooting, and assumed the directorial helm himself. No matter. Mr. Gibson’s telltale wisecracking, off-screen narration indicates directorial ineptitude from start to finish.

Whereas Mr. Boorman told his essentially heartless story with a cold, sharply angled, brightly colored mise en scène , Mr. Helgeland and Mr. Gibson have gone for a grubby look and dumbed-down dialogue that misses the whole point of the original Point Blank : simply that a lone individual is pitted against a criminal organization patterned after legitimate capitalist corporations.

The WASP nomenclature of the criminal C.E.O.’s-Fairfax, Carter, Porter-have been preserved in Payback for no discernible purpose. Ever since Al Capone’s exploits endeared him to moviemakers in the 30’s, Italo-American groups have been protesting the ethnic stereotyping to no avail. Point Blank was dismissed in 1967 as a sly evasion of the vowel-ending names of Al Capone’s screen descendants. Then five years later, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo opened the Godfather floodgates, and the ethnic stereotyping of criminals metastasized from sociology to mythology.

Not that Mr. Gibson could ever be convincingly ethnic or even particularly urban. He has become of late an odd man out wherever he is, either through mental eccentricity or superhuman bravado. Compared to the massive Lee Marvin in the original Point Blank , Mr. Gibson is conspicuously undersized. Yet he is mystically lethal without ever working up a sweat. Everything around him is more sordid and perverted than anything in the original Point Blank .

Mr. Gibson’s Porter looks at his double-crossing, heroin-addicted ex-wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) with the weary sang-froid of a superstar saddled with too many creative and financial responsibilities to figure out what his character is supposed to be feeling or expressing. He looks bored as he holds a gun over his pathologically sadistic former sidekick Val (Gregg Henry), and watches him being brutalized by Pearl (Lucy Liu from Ally McBeal ), a professional dominatrix who enjoys her work and all the black leather that goes with it.

Two crooked cops who were not in the original Point Blank are stuck into the plot mainly to enable Porter to make insulting voice-over remarks about how dumb all cops are, and how if Porter had been much dumber he might have sunk low enough to become one himself instead of the pickpocket and petty thief he is so proud of being. Indeed, the early publicity campaign exhorts everyone in the audience to root for the “bad guy” as if there is any other kind of character in the anarchically lawless sleaze and slime of Payback .

Rumor once had it that Marlon Brando insisted on being virtually crucified at least once in every movie he made. Mr. Brando would have drooled over Mr. Gibson’s Porter part in Payback . For starters, Porter is about to be castrated by a gang of angry Asian hoods when the two crooked cops round a corner in their patrol car as if they are maintaining the law. Later, when two mob hit men are about to rub out our “bad” hero, the angry Asians pop up again with enough automatic weapons to depopulate downtown Damascus, but they somehow miraculously miss Porter, riddling the hit men instead.

When his enemies connect his telephone to an enormous bomb to be activated when he answers, Porter disconnects the wires, sneaks down the stairs and blows up the car with the gangsters in it, through an oil-leaking-and-igniting maneuver that has to be seen to be disbelieved. But fear not, Mr. Brando. Porter does not get off entirely scot-free. After he has been brutally beaten, the head gangster honcho arrives with an assistant armed with a sledgehammer. First one of Porter’s toes is crushed, and then another, to the nursery rhyme of “This little piggy went to market, This little piggy went home,” etc.

The head gangster mixes his metaphors and meat groups when he remarks that Porter’s foot is beginning to resemble roast beef. Somehow Porter survives to blow up the rest of the mob and get away with the money together with his one true love, a hooker (what else?) named Rosie (Maria Bello).

My advice is get the video of Point Blank pronto, and forget Payback .

What’s the Deal With Tumors? Sweeney Lives to Laugh About It