Reviewing movies is a tricky business in the best of times. The reviewer ultimately ends up with a choice of stating whether s/he "liked" the film or simply deconstructing it and going through an examination of technical production techniques. Reviewing a comedy is that much harder because of the tremendously subjective nature of humor. For every person who enjoys the humor of a Deuce Bigalow movie, there is someone else gnawing his own leg off in an attempt to escape the theater. Reviewing a film primarily documenting a live standup comedy performance takes the problem to its logical limit, as there is precious little left after deciding whether the comedian made you laugh or not.
Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic is first and foremost a straightforward recording of Ms. Silverman performing a live stage performance of her solo comedy routine. Production technique consists mainly of edits that jump between the three cameras that filmed the event. I laughed heartily at some of the gags, smiled knowingly at others, and waited for the remainder to fade into an uncomfortable silence.
For those unfamiliar with Sarah Silverman's style, her humor is based primarily on shock value. She is a thin, attractive, unimposing brunette with a youthful voice. But her monologue deals with politically incorrect insults, racial slurs, sexual references, and other socially taboo subjects – all delivered with a litany of vulgarities. The presentation comes out funny because she does not emphasize the vulgarity; her delivery is matter of fact and conversational, as if her warped viewpoints are natural observations and reflections on her life and ours. The incongruity of the words issuing from the mouth of this seemingly "nice girl" cause the disassociative laughter response.
According to my trusty stopwatch, the recorded standup performance resulted in about 44 minutes of usable footage. That's just not enough to release as a feature film. So Silverman and director Liam Lynch furiously pad with enough filler material to bring the runtime to a barely acceptable minimum of 72 minutes. The extra material is painfully obvious as tacked on afterthought rather than an integral part of a cohesive film.
The movie opens with Sarah sitting in her apartment, listening to (fictional) friends talking about their success in professional comedy. She attempts to save face and match their stories with a lie about a new performance she is giving that very night. As she leaves the apartment, she begins a soliloquy in song about putting together a show to match her lies. The song is shot as a deliberately cheesy early MTV music video, with bad rear projection and obvious lip-synching.
The song is the first of four or five similar such music video interruptions penned and sung by Silverman. The comedienne is not much of a composer, lyricist, or singer. Both chords and lyrics tend to be highly repetitive and don't advance much beyond the stated central concept of the song – usually set up in the first line. The concept of singing "You're gonna die soon" as part of an amateur entertainment visit to a rest home may be funny (if you like that kind of shock gag), but it doesn't go anywhere. She basically keeps singing "You're gonna die soon" to each member of her elderly audience.
After the standup performance comes to an end on a high note that gets a good response from the live audience, we are treated to the closing half of the surrounding bookend story with Sarah and her comedy buddies pulling the energy level back down to zero in another scene of tacked-on dialogue. Then Silverman carefully ends the film with a coda designed to show herself as a loathsome and pathetic character. I am sure the idea was to make her preceding insults "acceptable" by showing us that, while she may have talked about hating other races, political persuasions, or individuals, it is all right because she hates herself more. It's a cop-out that robs her own material of its impact.
I have enjoyed watching Silverman's caustic and vulgar deliveries on the Comedy Central celebrity roasts. The bits are funny, they stand on their own, and she doesn't apologize or explain away what she says. Either the audience gets the comedic intent or it doesn't. That kind of brevity and courage would have greatly benefited this movie. My recommendation is to watch it with remote control in hand and to fast forward over anything that is not Sarah standing alone at a mike on stage.
Parents, the topics and language in the movie are inappropriate for children or for anyone likely to be offended by inflammatory and derogatory jokes.