The filmmaker is best known for the snarky documentary “Trekkies” (and unknown for his impressively wicked yet little-seen indie comedy “Suckers”) – but since then, his 2004 effort “Trekkies 2” wallowed in knee-jerk apology, playing nice with the sci-fi fans he ridiculed years earlier.
Now comes “The Nature of Existence,” in which Nygard attempts to craft a catch-all doc covering as many religions and religious point of views as possible. Perhaps still stung by the reaction to “Trekkies” (which wasn’t nearly as mean-spirited as its reputation suggests), Nygard sets out to include everyone and offend no one. He takes no stand while delivering the most harmless message possible: hey, deep down, we’re all the same, ya know.
Note that his closing judgment on the world’s religions – “we all want love and peace” – conflicts enormously with the event he claims started his spiritual journey: 9/11. So everyone wants peace, even those flying planes into skyscrapers? Yes, he finds plenty of Muslim interviewees to promote the upside of Islam, but then, he only shows the upside of every religion. You can’t start out asking how someone could be so devoted to an idea that he’ll commit murder, then dump the question as soon as you begin in an effort to not step on anyone’s toes. (Nygard ends up using 9/11 as an emotional hook; there’s nothing in the bulk of the movie that suggests the attacks are ever fueling his questions.)
There are hundreds of interviewees from across the globe; every major and most “minor” world religions are covered, as are views from atheists, physicists, and self-appointed gurus. And Nygard treats them all with equal weight – and that includes a handful whom even the looniest among us would label as nutjobs. “Existence” gives us ample time with, among others, a non-denominational bohemian sage who appears to have invented his own religion and a campus evangelist who, when asked complex moral questions from student passers-by, is clearly B.S.ing off the top of his head.
And that’s where Nygard stalls. He provides a list of “big questions” to ask everybody, then refuses to ask any follow-ups, to the point of vapidity. Two exceptions: When a Louisiana artist says something about dinosaurs still being alive, the filmmaker allows himself a brief “I dunno…” before allowing his interviewee to change subjects. Earlier, he almost allows himself to get snarky around a few of the more new age-y subjects, before backing off with a blend of “hey, man, it’s California!” wink and an “oh, just kidding around” lightness that shows a fear of giving off even the tiniest mockery vibe.
Such a hands-off, nobody’s-wrong approach might’ve worked without the filmmaker injecting himself into every scene, a sort of portrait of varied beliefs offered without commentary. But Nygard positions himself as a Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock-type everyman-on-a-quest-to-find-out (so much so that reaction shots of him as awkwardly – scratch that: badly – edited into the interviews) in an attempt to provide a linking point of view, while offering nothing but limp jokes and gee whiz reactions. He lacks the personality to carry us through. The best he can offer are lines like the narration snippet that pops up after a scholar talks at great length about an infinite God: “Well, that gave me something to think about.” Really, Roger? That’s all you have to say? “Something to think about”? Really?
After giving ample screen time to buddies and colleagues (including a writer pal’s dreadful stand-up act and, for reasons unclear, a chat with director Irvin Kershner), Nygard begins his trip around the world, starting with the obvious Holy Land destinations, eventually working his way east. The film’s final chunk becomes a sort of “Idiot’s Guide to Eastern Religion,” with introductory explanations of various Asian beliefs – all presented with a “huh, I guess there’s more than just the big three” approach. We never delve into anything, just skim the basics and move on.
Nygard’s has some fascinating ideas in his list of “big questions.” But even the toughest ones – Why would God allow suffering? Can you have morality without believing in an afterlife? Why do so many religions make such a big deal about sex? Why should a god demand worship? – remain under-examined, lest any viewer take offense to any of the responses. “Existence” makes no challenges, asks for no counterpoints. It’s overly, apologetically polite in its efforts to cover all the bases and avoids any chance for deep dialogue and rich debate. Repeating his “Trekkies 2” nice-guy approach, anyone who’s nice enough to talk to him on camera must never, ever look like a fool. Not even the dinosaur guy.