"Oh, God! Book II" revives that excruiating game of false piety in which Hollywood humorists grovel for brownie points in eternity by presuming to be God's chummiest press agents.
At once infuriating and inept, their shameless attempt to cover their bets in the hereafter by boring the pants off paying customers in the here-and-now should not go unrewarded. A modest proposal: Let the filmmakers and executives responsible for "Book II" spend eternity watching their own godforsaken clinker.
In the beginning was "Oh, God!," a moderately popular inspirational farce, promoted remorselessly on talk shows by director Carl Reiner when it was released in 1978. The prototype starred George Burns as a phlegmatic but mischievous old Jewish-toastmaster deity who disrupted the life of a nic WASP patsy -- a suburban grocery store manager and family man, played agreeably by John Denver.
Burns coaxed Denver into fronting for a publicity campaign designed to remind folks that God was not only still alive, but also believed in the perfectibility of mankind and guaranteed that problems could be solved with a little more faith and hard work.
One gathers that the campaign fizzled, because "Book II" begins with Burns with confiding, in a voice-over lamentation: "What a mess! Every time I look down, it gets worse! Maybe I shouldn't look down."
Not a bad idea, but producer-director Gilbert Cates (who may be known as The Master of Inertia after this picture) and a motley crew of gag writers (beginning, somewhat shockingly, with Josh Greenfeld, who wrote "A Child Called Noah" and "Harry and Tonto") insist that God not only look, but interfere. Evidently starved for innovative concepts, Burns solicits another publicity stunt. This time he elects a Beverly Hills schoolgirl named Tracy, played by an attractively puckish but already overtrained 10-year-old with the stage name Louanne, who first played the title role of "Annie" in the Los Angeles production of the show.
Tracy and her classmates (God's Little Helpers, so to speak) appear to be perfectly harmless agitators, decorating the school and neighborhood with gaily colored signs that read, "Think God." Nevertheless, the desperate filmmakers would have us believe Tracy provokes a controversy that earns her immediate suspension, a battery of neurological exams as sinister as the sequence inflicted on Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" and finally, the threat of a life sentence in the boobyhatch.
While this outrageous plot is tediously played out, Burns conveniently disappears, and the girl's divorced parents, realty agent Suzanne Pleshette and ad man David Birney, act conveniently stupid. This would-be heartening confection is seriously compromised by the implications of God's apparently cavalier treatment of Tracy and her parents' acquiesence in all the official intimidation, absurd as it is.
Eventually, Burns shuffles back into camera range and gets the poor tyke off the hook. Higher authorities also ride to the rescue, in the televised presences of Hugh Downs and Dr. Joyce Brothers. Hugh assures us that the "Think God" campaign is causing a sensation all over the world -- or selected segments of the Free World, anyway. Sly old equivocator that she is, Dr. Joyce advises us to keep an open mind about Tracy's crusade because, as the Old Testament says, "And a little child shall lead them."
It's difficult to believe that a human director was ever on duty in "Book II." It must have been controlled by some kind of new computer programmed to duplicate the look and pace of most TV shows.
The maddening tone of the script may be suggested by a sample of the heart-to-heart talks shared by God and child. "God, who do you pray to?" Tracy asks, to kick off a typical exchange.
"Well, sometimes I talk to myself," God quips.
"I guess it gets pretty lonely," Tracy persists.
"Let's put it this way," God puts it. "Whenever I sneeze, there's no one to bless me."
Summoned downstairs by her parents, Tracy delivers the following exit line: "Well, I gotta go now. Bless you, God. That's for the next time you sneeze."
Familiarity of this kind does indeed breed contempt.