Priests, professors, poets and professional wrestlers all weigh in on the meaning of life in Roger Nygard’s “The Nature of Existence,” a cook’s tour of world religions, crackpot spirituality, devout atheism and mathematical certitude en route to a pretty predictable arrival at the Golden Rule. While it will strike some as smug and others as sincere, pic certainly has a feel-good tone and playful attitude, both of which could draw congregants to this pasteurized version of “What the #$*! Do We Know?”
Predictably, Nygard — whose previous docu, “Trekkies,” probed the belief system of “Star Trek” fans — finds a great deal of absolutism in his survey of the churchly, the churchless, the agnostic and the academic (which bears some resemblance to the 2009 docu “Oh My God”). Beginning with the question “Why do we exist?,” the director gets a lot of seemingly facetious answers such as “sex,” “chocolate” and “because God was lonely.” But behind most of the flippancy is a germ of truth, which is itself a subject of debate: God is truth, some say, while others define him so broadly and loosely that, as one subject wisely points out, the argument becomes absurd.
But there really is no argument in “The Nature of Existence” — not between any of the subjects, who are filmed individually on their college campuses, coffee shops and Chinese temples, or between Nygard and any of the dozens of people he interviews, ranging from author Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”) to seventh-grader Chloe Revery, a child whose excruciating precociousness is precisely what demolishes any seriousness to which Nygard pretends. “I’ll let you in on a little secret,” she says. “There is no afterlife.” Thanks for that profound insight.
It’s great when one real debate does break out, between bombastic street preacher Jed Smock and Nygard’s friend Stevie Ray Fromstein. But at some point in his travels to Stonehenge, the Great Wall and the Brooklyn Bridge, Nygard must have felt pretty silly, because whatever someone says, he has someone else contradicting it. So while his digressions from the film’s basic structure of cleverly counterbalanced talking heads may make no formal sense, at least they give us a chance to breathe: a lengthy visit to the Cathedral of Hope, a Texas church with a gay congregation, for instance; or Athens, Ga., home of Ultimate Christian Wrestling; or the Vatican.
The Catholic Church has its problems, but Nygard tends to stick his finger in the wounds with considerable joy, and gives Christianity a far more rigorous going-over than Jainism, Taoism, Islam or Native-American shamanism.
Production values are divine.