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 is Ben (played by Alan Tudyk), a lonely widower who is in his 50s. Ben 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 has 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.

Review: ‘Alone’ (2020), starring Jules Willcox and Marc Menchaca

October 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jules Willcox in “Alone” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Alone” (2020)

Directed by John Hyams

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of Oregon, the horror flick “Alone” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widow traveling by herself on a road trip is kidnapped by a stranger after a a road-rage incident.

Culture Audience: “Alone” will appeal primarily to people who like watching realistic and suspenseful “women in peril” movies.

Jules Willcox and Marc Menchaca in “Alone” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

If you consider how many movies are about women who’ve been kidnapped and held captive in an isolated area, then it’s pretty commendable that “Alone” takes this very unoriginal concept and still makes it a very suspenseful movie that isn’t tacky or overly melodramatic. “Alone” (directed by John Hyams) also makes great use of locations and having a small number of people in the cast to make this a satisfying thriller that is horrifying without being exploitative.

When it comes down to it, there are really only two main characters in this film: the kidnapper and his victim. The movie (written by Mattias Olsson) is told from the perspective of the protagonist Jessica Swanson (played by Jules Wilcox), a woman in her 30s who is on a road trip in an unnamed rural part of Oregon. Jessica is taking this trip by herself, and the beginning of the movie shows her closing the door of a U-Haul trailer where she’s packed her possessions, as she’s about to embark on this trip.

Jessica is moving somewhere to start a new life. She’s grieving over the death of her husband Eric (played by Jonathan Rosenthal), who’s shown in brief flashbacks in home videos that Jessica watches on her computer tablet. Eric died six months earlier, and his cause of death is revealed later in the story.

There’s almost nothing else about Eric that’s stated in the movie, such as how long he and Jessica were married or what he did for a living. But it’s very clear, based on the snippets of home videos that Jessica watches while she silently cries, that she and Eric were happy together. They had no children together, and Jessica seems to be a loner, because her concerned parents (who do not have names in the movie) are only people she checks in with by phone during her road trip. (Betty Moyer is the voice of Jessica’s mother. Shelly Lipkin is the voice of Jessica’s father.)

Jessica has an independent streak, because it’s revealed in her phone conversations with her parents that she impulsively decided to pack up and leave early for her road trip, after making plans for her parents to come over to her place and help her move. This sudden change of plans doesn’t case major problems with her parents, but they seem to be a little bit thrown-off they didn’t get a chance to help her pack and say goodbye to her. They’re also worried about her traveling by herself, but Jessica assures them that she will be just fine.

Her final destination is never talked about in the movie, but Jessica is heading north, and she begins her trip during the day. As she drives through an isolated, heavily wooded area of Oregon where each side of the road has only one lane, Jessica comes across a black Jeep that’s driving too slow in front of her. She tailgates the Jeep, but the driver either doesn’t see her or doesn’t take the hint to speed up. The Jeep’s license plates are covered in mud, making it impossible to get a clear view of the license plate number.

Finally, in frustration, Jessica decides to pass the Jeep, even though it means she would have to go in the lane for traffic that’s going in the opposite direction. She waits until the coast is clear and then goes in the opposite lane. But the driver of the Jeep (played by Marc Menchaca) sees her and speeds up, to indicate that he doesn’t want her to get in front of him.

Just as this happens, a big-rig truck is driving right toward Jessica, and it looks like she’s about to crash into it, but she’s able to increase her speed fast enough and swerve into the correct lane in front of the obnoxious Jeep driver, who then decides to tailgate her. Rather than continue this cat-and-mouse road rage situation, Jessica drives off the nearest side exit and waits long enough to let the Jeep drive ahead, so that by she gets back on the main road, the Jeep is nowhere in sight.

However, miles later, when she’s at a gas station, she’s startled by someone tapping on her window. It’s the Jeep driver: a bespectacled, red-haired man who’s in his late 30s or early 40s. This stranger tells Jessica that he’s sorry for the road-rage incident earlier. He makes a weird excuse that he had been texting while driving and didn’t see her at first, and when she swerved in front of him, he kind of got angry.

Jessica accepts his apology, but senses that something is “off” with this guy, because he’s being too nosy when he asks her what her name is, where she’s headed, and if she lives nearby. He doesn’t volunteer the same information about himself. Jessica tells him her first name only, and gives a vague reply that she’s headed north.

This guy seems to want to continue the conversation, but Jessica politely cuts it short and tells him that she needs to go. However, he’s obviously seen her U-Haul trailer, so he can figure out that she might be someone who’s not from the area and might be unfamiliar with the terrain if she gets kidnapped. Because you know that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

The movie builds up suspense to this kidnapping, by showing this mystery man encountering Jessica at other times during the trip, just like a predator stalking his prey. His name is revealed toward the end of the movie, but for the purposes of this review, he’ll just be referred to as the “kidnapper” from now on.

The next time Jessica sees the man who will kidnap her, his Jeep is blocking the road, and he’s got the car lid up, as if he’s having car problems. He’s also got his arm in a sling. Because his car is stopped in the middle of the lane, Jessica stops her car.

He flags her down and tells her that his car engine suddenly died, and he needs a ride to the nearest gas station. He also asks Jessica to help him move his Jeep off of the road. In a lot of kidnapping movies like this, the victim is fooled too easily and makes bad decisions in order to be polite or look like a Good Samaritan. What’s great about this movie is that the victim doesn’t make bad decisions and doesn’t easily fall for a seemingly harmless-looking person.

Instead of agreeing to let this strange man into her car, Jessica offers to call the nearest gas station for him. She tells him she that she can use her car’s GPS to find it. Seeing that Jessica is no fool and that she has a working cell phone, the kidnapper then says that he knows which gas station it is, and then tries to get Jessica to open the car door so that she can help him move his car out from the road.

Of course, getting a “stuck” car off of the road is what a tow truck is supposed to do. Jessica knows it, the kidnapper knows it, and she senses that this guy is up to no good because he’s acting as if she’s the only one who can help him. And it’s a red flag that he declined Jessica’s offer to call the nearest service station, and there’s no mention if he has his own phone to call for help. Jessica makes an excuse that she has to go because she’s late for a meeting, and she drives away.

It should come as no surprise that the kidnapper doesn’t really have an arm injury. He wore a sling on his arm to make himself look harmless. Faking an arm injury by wearing a sling or a cast is a tactic that kidnappers sometimes use to lure their victims when they ask for the victims’ help as a way to catch them off-guard. It’s a tactic that notorious serial killer Ted Bundy used for many of his victims.

During her road trip, when Jessica parents call her or she calls them, Jessica doesn’t really tell her parents about her encounters with this stranger, because there’s nothing they can do about it. What exactly can she say anyway? This guy didn’t break any laws with her. She doesn’t know his name or license plate number. She only has the description of him and his Jeep.

However, Jessica starts to become frightened when she sees the man in the Jeep again. This time, it’s at night and she’s at a nearly deserted rest stop. She quickly leaves the area and calls 911 when she thinks he’s following her. But it’s a false alarm, because it’s another car that was behind her.

However, as soon as she hangs up the phone, Jessica suddenly loses control of her car, which swerves off into a grassy area by the side of the road. When she gets out of the car, she sees that one of her tires has been slashed. As she gets back into the car to call for help, that’s when the guy in the Jeep suddenly drives up, uses a tire iron to smash her front passenger window, assaults her and kidnaps her.

Jessica wakes up to find that she’s in a locked basement in an isolated cabin in the woods. She begs the mystery kidnapper to let her go and promises she won’t tell anyone. He replies with a sadistic smile, “Do you think you’re the first one to say that?” The rest of the movie shows Jessica’s ordeal in trying to escape.

The believability of “Alone” rests largely on how the actors portray their characters. And fortunately, Willcox and Menchaca give very believable performances in their roles. The horror of “Alone” comes from the fact that there are many real-life kidnappers and serial killers who look like “average people” with “average lives” but they have an evil, twisted side to them that’s well-hidden from a lot of people. And as previously stated, “Alone” doesn’t make the female victim a gullible dimwit, which is an annoying flaw of other kidnapping movies.

The only slightly false note in “Alone” is when Jessica calls 911 and tells the 911 operator that she doesn’t know where she is and can’t even give a general location. This is after viewers see that Jessica’s car is equipped with GPS. However, this fairly minor plot hole could have an explanation that maybe Jessica was in panic mode and wasn’t thinking clearly.

In terms of kidnapping movies, “Alone” doesn’t do anything innovative. But it keeps the suspense throughout the entire film and presents enough realistic scenarios that it will definitely serve as a cautionary tale for anyone taking a long road trip alone. This movie is proof that you don’t need flashy action stunts or a large cast to make a very effective thriller.

Magnet Releasing released “Alone” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on September 18, 2020.

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