Sometime after Gracie Allen died, George Burns, a lifetime second banana, became a big cheese. With his eyes contracted to diamond tiepins, his splayed upper lip blowing in and out of his mouth like a spinnaker in a storm, Burns became a hero to an aging culture, a connoisseur of long-legged women and longer cigars.
And not just a hero, but God himself in what may prove (God willing) to be a series of "Oh God" movies. In "Oh God! You Devil," Burns plays both roles; as the Devil, Burns, well, burns, flicking a flame from his thumb to light his cigars. "He just wants to talk about the old days," the Devil says of God. "Moses. Abraham. King Wenceslaus."
Tossing off these lines in a flat stream of patter, singing his old tuneless songs, Burns has, in his eighties, become an '80s personality: deadpan, out of it, an ignored, uninvited guest having a great time. He didn't even have to try to be au courant -- he just had to stick around until the wheel of culture turned full circle.
But there's all too little of Burns here, and what's left is a stagnant update of the Faust legend: "The Devil and Neil Diamond." Billy (Ted Wass) is a songwriter who can't get a break, so he sells his soul to the Devil (Burns, in a snappy blazer), who makes him a star. The contract demands that he give up his old life, though; he misses his wife, so he pages God (Burns again, in yacht cap and boat shoes) in a Vegas casino, and begs him to rescind the deal.
The movie is full of half-witted Hollywood satire (the Devil's an agent -- get it?), lame wordplay, and easy moralism about family being more important than career blah blah blah. Wass, the movie's bedeviled ham, is among our most frenetically unattractive actors -- grimacing with his mouth ajar, he always looks as though he has a cherry pit stuck between his back molars.
When Billy tells God (quoting "Casablanca"), "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," God says, "I never go to movies." God knows, he has a point.
"Oh God! You Devil," rated PG, opens today at area theaters.