ESPECIALLY IN THE HUSHED AND sterile aftermath of illness, humor can seem both desperately necessary and remarkably out of place. When her very close brother was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the lymph nodes at about the same time she was getting her own life together, Julia Sweeney figured it must be evidence of God's terrible sense of humor. Her brother, unable to care for himself, moved in with her. So did her mother and father. For a year the family lived with one bathroom, regular arguments about whether pasta was called "pasta" or simply "noodles," and the desperate hope that Sweeney's brother would get better without first getting too much worse.

Sweeney's brother did not get better. Moreover, that same year Sweeney was diagnosed with cancer herself: ovarian cancer. At the edge of desperation, crowded to claustrophobia, Sweeney would sneak out of the house to perform therapeutic stand-up comedy at a local L.A. club. These monologues, all wry stories that will break your heart with humor, comprise Sweeney's new film, God Said, "Ha!"

God Said, "Ha!" is filmed like a Spalding Gray monologue (without Spalding Gray, thank God), with Sweeney perched on a well-worn couch in the middle of a theatrically lit stage. The entire movie consists of close-ups of Sweeney's rubbery and slightly abstracted facial expressions, coupled with the remarkable story she has to tell. She hardly moves at all. But Sweeney doesn't need to move to rivet the audience, because her material is hilarious, humane, and utterly poignant.

Sweeney's depiction of her mother, brassy Spokane accent and all, is especially realistic, irritating, and funny. Sweeney describes how she would leave the house for auditions--"or 'try-outs,' as my mother insisted on calling them"--and return to find her kitchen raided, her Trader Joe's salsa replaced with canned tomato paste ("which my mother was certain could double as salsa, or spaghetti sauce in a pinch"). At one point, after she has gotten news of her ovarian cancer, Sweeney decides that the only thing that will make her feel better is to do something naughty: smoke a cigarette, and buy the new book by the Pope. She cannot, however, smoke in front of her parents since her father is a reformed smoker, so she goes for a drive down Hollywood Boulevard, only to accidentally set her back seat on fire when she tosses the cigarette out the window. When she returns home she concocts a wild story about "some old man" driving next to her who tossed his cigarette into her car. Sweeney's story-telling gymnastics, and her slip into adolescent deception, are too familiar not to be funny.

The fine-tuned physical aspect of Sweeney's humor that allowed her to play the androgynous "Pat" on Saturday Night Live is on full display in God Said, "Ha!" She has the kind of face that draws attention at dinner parties, expressive both in contempt and tenderness. Since God Said, "Ha!" is filmed as a stage play, it can sometimes be disconcerting to see Sweeney addressing a hypothetical audience, only to turn and directly address the camera. Occasionally bits of the filming equipment or stage machinery are allowed to creep into the frame, as if to remind us that we are once removed, watching a theatrical monologue being performed to no audience and replayed to multiple audiences. Those who do not appreciate the humor of domestic minutiae may find that Sweeney's stories conform to a predictable landscape of "this is my mother, isn't she irritating?"; but mostly Sweeney manages to surpass this trap. She regularly comes back to reminders of the gravity of the situation, and in conjunction with the ironic humor these reminders seem gently profound.

In the end, when illness and sadness overtake the family, Sweeney does an excellent job of letting us in on her emotions without ever making us feeling manipulated. Not once does she slip into sentimentality; her humor's too smart for that. She wells up once, but like a good midwestern American, she swallows hard. God Said, "Ha!" is evidence that we don't need Robin Williams and his overblown Patch Adams to convince us that laughter is the best medicine, and that simple, elegant storytelling still wins out over special effects. If you still prefer the special effects, haul your ass to Wing Commander, but afterward, maybe you should give your momma a call.

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