Unjustly obscure, "Heavens Above!" is among Peter Sellers' essential movies. But beware, fans of droll British satire: You'll have to forgive an absurd ending which taints the entire film.
Sellers plays Rev. John Smallwood, a guileless prison chaplain who, by mistake, is summoned to the small community of Orbiston Parva. The town's revenue depends on a factory that produces Tranquilax, a dubious remedy that is a sedative, stimulant and laxative all at once. A perverse comparison is drawn between this "three in one" panacea and the Holy Trinity.
It's unclear whether Smallwood is a righteous thinker or just a simpleton who lucked into a virtuous path (shades of "Being There"'s Chance Gardener). But his gentle admonitions shock a hypocritical population accustomed to lazy, unearned feelings of godliness. Most residents are furious and call for his dismissal, but he does reach the matriarch of the town's wealthy, dominant family. Fearing damnation, she begins an extravagant charity program that frustrates shopkeepers and quickly unbalances the local economy. Meanwhile, passing comments from Smallwood's sermons hurt Tranquilax's credibility and cut into its profits. Can Orbiston Parva survive this disastrous dose of spirituality?
"Heavens Above!" takes shots at quite a few targets, from religion to capitalism to class divisions. It's a notably bleak portrait of humanity -- even the poor people are corrupt and ungrateful. There are some nice supporting performances, particularly Brock Peters' turn as a good-hearted garbageman, but Sellers carries the film with a brilliantly understated characterization. Beyond one pratfall into an open grave, he scarcely does anything "funny" in the film and yet "Heavens Above!" is indeed a comedy. It's just too bad that a farcical conclusion wholly violates the film's established, low-key tone.