Review: ‘Playing God’ (2021), starring Hannah Kasulka, Luke Benward, Jude Demorest, Alan Tudyk and Michael McKean

August 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Luke Benward, Michael McKean and Hannah Kasulka in “Playing God” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Playing God” (2021)

Directed by Scott Brignac

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in an unnamed U.S. city, the dark comedy “Playing God” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A sister and a brother, who work together as con artists, enlist an elderly male ex-con friend to pretend to be God, in order to rob a billionaire who’s seeking spiritual enlightenment.

Culture Audience: “Playing God” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a far-fetched and not-very-funny comedic heist movie.

Alan Tudyk in “Playing God” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Playing God” is one in a long list of movies that would have been much better if the concept had been made into a short film instead of a feature-length film. The very flimsy premise of “Playing God” is bloated into 95 minutes of tedious and uninspired repetition, with dull acting and empty characters. It’s ironic that this vapid comedy, which tries to use spirituality as a punchline, actually has no soul.

It’s a story about a brother/sister duo of con artists who decide to pull off their biggest scam by fooling a spiritually troubled billionaire into thinking that he’s interacting with a physical embodiment of God. (The movie takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, but “Playing God” was actually filmed in the Houston area.) The reason why these grifter siblings need the money is because they’re heavily in debt to a local gangster. Yawn.

Written and directed by Scott Brignac, “Playing God” is the type of movie that people will forget not long after watching it. Fans of actor Michael McKean will be disappointed that this is the low-quality junk he’s been doing lately, considering his masterful comedic work in the classic 1984 mockumentary “The Is Spinal Tap,” as well as in movies directed by his “This Is Spinal Tap” co-star Christopher Guest. Even the work that McKean did in the goofy sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” is better than the banal stupidity of “Playing God.”

McKean portrays Frank, an ex-con pal of the sibling scammers who recruit Frank to impersonate a physical manifestation of God to a gullible billionaire whom all three of them plan to rob. Before the movie even gets to this scheme, it wastes a lot of screen time (approximately 20 minutes of the movie’s beginning) showing some other scams perpetrated by Rachel (played by Hannah Kasulka) and her older brother Micah (played by Luke Benward), who are both in their mid-20s. Rachel and Micah also live together.

In one of the con games, blonde Rachel (wearing a black wig as a disguise) pretends to be a guitarist who plays for money on the street. When a male passerby in a business suit gives her more than the usual pocket change, the scam gets put into motion. Rachel follows this donor and stops him to thank him for his generosity. While they are talking, another man comes out of hiding and steals the guitar.

Rachel and the Good Samaritan give chase, but the thief is too fast for them. The businessman feels sympathy for Rachel and gives her a wad of cash to buy a new guitar. When Rachel goes home and takes off her disguise, viewers see that the guitar is safe and sound. The “thief” was really Micah.

That kind of scam is a one-off deal where they can’t fool the same people again, and there’s no guarantee of how much cash they can get from unsuspecting strangers. Rachel and Micah have another con game, which is more long-term and more consistent on how much money they can con out of people. It’s a scam that’s much more heinous because Rachel and Micah have befriended the people whom they’re cheating.

Micah and Rachel have become close to a married musician couple named June (played by Jude Demorest) and Owen (played by Leighton B. Allen), who are both in a band together. June is pregnant and due to give birth any day now to her and Owen’s first child. It’s not really made clear in the movie how long Micah and Rachel have been cheating June and Owen out of their money. However, it’s been long enough where June and Owen expect Rachel to stop by their place on a regular basis to collect June and Owen’s donations for poor orphans in other countries.

Rachel pretends that she’s a representative of a charity for orphans, but the charity and orphans actually don’t exist. She goes as far as showing June and Owen photos of kids that she says are the orphans, but it’s all a lie. It’s mentioned in the movie that Rachel met June and Owen through the local music scene. Rachel really does play guitar and would like to be a professional singer/musician, but she and Micah have been swindling people as a way to make money instead of an honest living.

How did Micah and Rachel end up this way? “Playing God” is so sloppily written, that this question is never answered. There’s a vague backstory about how Micah and Rachel were abandoned by their father at a very young age, when Rachel was 2 and Micah was about 3 or 4 years old. Four years later, their mother died of a drug overdose by pills. Rachel was the one who found her mother on their bathroom floor. And so, Rachel and Micah ended up in foster care.

However, the movie never explains how and why Rachel and Micah went from being in foster care as children to becoming con artists as adults. Maybe that’s because the filmmakers know that this movie’s main characters are so shallow and not very likable, viewers won’t care much about the backgrounds of these characters. Micah is the bossy leader of this criminal duo.

Micah is also very irresponsible and selfish. Rachel finds out the hard way, when she and Micah are kidnapped by a local gangster named Vaughn (played by Marc Menchaca) and some of Vaughn’s thugs. While Rachel and Micah are tied to chairs that are facing each other in a warehouse-looking room, Vaughn demands the $200,000 that he says Micah and Rachel owe to Vaughn. It’s news to Rachel, who apparently was unaware that this debt was not paid.

However, Micah confesses to Rachel that instead of paying off their debt to Vaughn, he “lost” the money instead. Micah doesn’t go into details, but viewers can speculate. Considering that they’ve been kidnapped over it, you’d think that Rachel would want to know how Micah lost the money, but she doesn’t ask. That’s how bad this movie’s screenplay is.

Vaughn and his thugs start to torture Micah by making him wear headphones so that they can turn on the volume so loud, it will permanently damage his eardrums. Just as the thugs are about to do the same to Rachel, Micah breaks down and promises Vaughn that he and Rachel can get the money to them in 10 days. And so begins the “race against time” that’s more sluggish than it needs to be in this movie.

Micah comes up with the idea to scam a famous billionaire to get the money. The target Ben (played by Alan Tudyk), who is in his 50s, founded a tech company and got rich when he sold the company for about $500 million with stock options. He’s been retired ever since. Ben is a lonely widower who’s been in depressive emotional state, ever since his wife and daughter (who was about 12 or 13 years old) died in a car accident several years earlier, after he retired.

To cope with his grief, Ben has been on a quest to “find God” and get more spiritual enlightenment. He goes on expensive retreats to remote places to take psychedelic drugs like ayahuasca. (The movie’s opening scene briefly shows him on one such trip, where he vomits soon after ingesting an unnamed liquid psychedelic.) Ben is also known to seek advice from high-priced “spiritual gurus,” many of whom are probably con artists.

Ben’s tendency to pay people for spiritual advice is the main reason why Micah and Rachel think that Ben will be an easy mark. The siblings decide to pay an unannounced visit to Ben at his mansion. Micah and Rachel dress in identical white pant suits and pose as religious associates named Clint Chambers and Samantha Crowley.

When they get to Ben’s mansion, they see that he has been working on a strange-looking structure that can best be described as having tin spirals that give the entire structure the shape of a large Christmas tree. This structure is not a tree house, but someone can climb into it. It’s an eyesore that’s placed right in the middle of front lawn.

It looks like someone’s idea of an invention that can send signals to outer space. The only purpose of having this ramshackle-looking invention in the movie is to show that Ben is mentally unbalanced in some way. He’s been working on this tin structure as if he thinks he’s a NASA genius.

As soon as Ben sees Micah and Rachel dressed in their white suits, Ben figures that these two strangers are from some kind of religious group, and they want money from him. He’s right about the money part. Rachel/Samantha tells Ben, “We’d like to discuss the incident that happened at St. Teresa.” She introduces herself and Micah under their fake names.

Ben seems embarrassed when he replies, “I already apologized to Father Paul.” Don’t expect the movie to explain what this incident was that resulted in Ben having to give an apology to a clergyperson. Viewers won’t find out. Instead, Ben invites Micah/Clint and Rachel/Samantha inside for a brief conversation. Ben hastily gives them $20,000 in cash to make them go away.

Rachel thinks that’s the end of the con and is happy to take the money. But Micah has other ideas. He figures that if Ben was so quick to give up that cash, then Ben has a lot more cash in the house that can be swindled or stolen. Micah declines to take the cash and tells Ben, “God doesn’t want your money.”

Shortly after that, Micah and Rachel leave. At first, Rachel is furious that they didn’t take the $20,000. But when Micah explains that he has an idea where they can get the $200,000 and possibly an even higher amount so that that they can keep the extra cash for themselves, Rachel somewhat reluctantly goes along with the plan. Micah says it was important to fool Ben into thinking that they’re not after his money, so he’ll let his guard down when they go back to him to start the scam that Micah has in mind.

Micah’s plan is to go back to Ben in the near future with someone who’s impersonating God. Somehow, Micah and Rachel are supposed to convince Ben that he’s talking to God, so Ben might give up secrets about where he keeps the pile of cash that they’re sure is in his mansion. Ben’s conversations with “God” are also supposed to be a distraction for Micah and Rachel to sneak into Ben’s mansion to steal the money.

Anyone who thinks this is a good idea for a movie or for a scam in real life is hallucinating more than Ben after taking ayahuasca. But here is this moronic idea that’s the basis for this unimaginative slog of a movie. There are so many things that aren’t considered that could go wrong that the movie expects viewers to overlook, such as: What if it takes longer than 10 days to get the information? What if Ben demands proof from the phony God that the phony God can’t deliver? What if viewers actually thought about what a dumb idea this is for a movie?

The next step for Micah and Rachel is to find their phony God. They go to a roller skating rink (yes, you read that right) to visit their old pal Frank, a fellow con artist who spent time in prison for his crimes. After getting out of prison, Frank has been trying to lead a “straight-laced” lifestyle as the owner of this roller skating rink, where he is also the DJ. The movie gives a vague mention that the siblings met Frank through a past con job.

Frank immediately turns down their offer, because he says he’s a reformed con artist and doesn’t want to get involved in anything where he could be sent back to prison. However, Rachel correctly predicts that the lure of easy money will be too tempting for Frank to pass up, and he agrees to do the con. Frank wants a cut of the haul, of course, and he thinks it would be better to steal Ben’s famous collection of rare coins and some valuable art that the siblings saw in the mansion, instead of speculating that there will be at least $200,000 in cash conveniently lying around to steal.

The rest of the movie shows what happens when the plan for Frank to play God is set in motion. Ben is skeptical at first that Frank is God, but Frank is able to convince Ben that he knows too many private things about Ben. He lists some of these things.

Much to Ben’s surprise, these private facts are correct. They’re things that someone would know if they had secret surveillance of Ben in his home. There’s no explanation for how the surveillance was secretly put in Ben’s home—it’s an example of this idiotic film’s many plotholes.

One of Ben’s first meetings with “God” takes places on a hotel rooftop, where Ben threatens to jump off of the roof shortly after talking to “God.” Ben tells “God” to prove that he’s “God” by stopping Ben from jumping. It’s really the movie’s tacky way of making suicide attempts look like a gimmicky joke.

Skilled con artist Frank is able to prevent Ben from jumping, by using reverse pyschology in telling Ben to go ahead and jump because God can’t control if people feel suicidal or not. The tactic works, and Ben doesn’t jump, since it’s obvious he just wants attention and not to commit suicide. Ben’s banter with “God” is often prickly and argumentative, because Ben blames God for the death of Ben’s wife and daughter.

There are more scenes of Frank “proving” that he’s God to Ben. And there are more scenes of Rachel visiting June and Owen. These scenes are just time-wasting filler until the movie finally gets to the actual heist. “Playing God” goes even more downhill from there.

A major secret is revealed (it’s not too surprising), which is supposed to add emotional gravitas to this con game. It doesn’t, because in order for this secret to be believable, a lot of people would need to have amnesia about names and identities. It’s just a lazy plot twist added to an already silly movie.

None of the actors does anything special. McKean, the most well-known of the cast members, seems to be just going through the motions. He clearly did not choose to do the movie because it has a good screenplay. It’s all just a waste of McKean’s talent.

Frank is supposed to be the most interesting character in the movie (considering he’s put to the task of convincing someone that he’s God), but Frank is as bland as bland can be. There are some hints that Frank has a fascinating backstory. At one point, Frank tells Micah and Rachel that he went to Catholic school for 10 years, but he got ex-communicated from the Catholic Church at age 15.

This personal anecdote could just be a con man telling another lie, but what if it were really true? What did Frank do to get ex-communicated from the Catholic Church as an underage teen? The movie never answers those questions because it’s not interested in presenting anything intriguing about these characters. The only reason why Frank’s Catholic school background seems to have been mentioned is because it’s supposed to make him “qualified” to know about God and Christianity.

All of the cast members are very mediocre with their acting, mostly because their characters are so poorly developed. And the same could be said of Micah and Rachel’s con schemes. These dimwitted siblings do such a terrible job of conceiving their tricks and not covering their tracks, viewers will feel like Micah and Rachel should’ve been caught and imprisoned a long time ago.

“Playing God” could have had some clever commentary on the dangers of following “false idols,” but it’s all overlooked because of some ridiculously half-baked ideas that made their way into this movie. People who are religious or spiritual won’t be offended that the movie is about someone impersonating God. What will offend people is if they’re conned into paying money or wasting their time to watch this clumsily made nonsense.

Vertical Entertainment released “Playing God” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 6, 2021.