Part whimsy, part syrup, “Dear God” is a fanciful comedy with an arresting premise. It unfortunately has an unfinished quality, and plays very much like a good first draft for a much better movie than the one on view. Nonetheless, a strong cast provides enough initial elan to translate into decent opening results and good ancillary action. There’s no denying the film’s heart is in the right place even if its head is slightly askew.
The yarn centers on silky-tongued con man Tom Turner (Greg Kinnear), who can’t quite scam enough to keep up with his racetrack losses. His increasingly bold efforts to pay off debts land him in court on fraud charges. But a judge with a wicked sense of humor agrees to wipe clean his police blotter if he can land a job and keep it for a year. His Honor reckons it will provide the felon with a sober grounding in the real world.
So Turner decides to tough it out and, with the help of a relative, gets menial work at the post office. He winds up assigned to the dead letter office — a remote corner of the mail operation populated by misfits and eccentrics.
His niche is the letters sent to Santa, Elvis and, you guessed it, God. He makes the mistake of reading one desperate letter and decides to send the writer — a woman living with her son in a tenement — some costume jewelry to cheer her up. But in his haste, Turner also includes his pay packet.
When he attempts to retrieve his money, he can’t quite get up the steam to smooth talk the gelt back. Conveniently, co-worker Rebecca (Laurie Metcalf) — a burned-out lawyer — is doing pro bono work for the tenants and assumes his good deed was intentional. She coerces him into another act of largess for a “Dear God” writer with a terminally ill child. Soon the entire section is bitten with the bug to do good, selfless acts. It is, after all, the holiday season.
So, somewhere just below a cynical surface, Turner has the proverbial heart of gold. And director Garry Marshall mines that vein shamelessly. Alas, much of what he extracts is simply pyrites masking as the real thing.
The bedrock of the picture is its effectively loony cast, including the likes of Tim Conway as a flipped-out former mail carrier, Hector Elizondo as the dead letter office’s eccentric Russian supervisor, and Metcalf. In this environment, Kinnear appears relatively sane, and his natural poise and charm make him a highly likable and effective leading man.
But Marshall doesn’t display a lot of confidence in either his script or the subtle work of his cast. He pours on the corn, schmaltzy music and cheap gags whenever he senses the narrative is flagging. Admittedly, the Warren Leight-Ed Kaplan screenplay does have its flaws. It definitely pulls up short in its climactic courtroom section in which Turner, a la Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street,” confronts the differences between good and legal. (O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden pops up in an amusing cameo as a TV commentator.)
“Dear God’s” strength is characterization more than plot, while its sin is haste. The latter is apparent in the picture’s slap-dash look, particularly its uniform bright sitcom veneer. It’s also obvious that more time in developing a better conclusion was necessary. One senses the film-makers striving for a contempo “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but settling for good intentions over good drama.