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The Nature of Existence -- Film Review

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A philosophical sampler for the Age of the Short Attention Span, "The Nature of Existence" is filmmaker Roger Nygard's earnest attempt to "find meaning in the universe."

He traveled the world to pose what's-it-all-about questions to a wide assortment of people, famous and not. The resulting mosaic of opinions on such matters as God, sin, truth and the afterlife is mildly thought-provoking but too diffuse to make much of an impact. The good-looking film, which opens Friday in New York and July 2 in Los Angeles, would work well as a classroom discussion-starter for college students and in high schools where a few f-bombs might be tolerated.

Once Nygard gets past the awful me-me-me opening, with its cringe-inducing oversimplifications (Americans never contemplated their mortality until Sept. 11?), he steps behind the camera -- where he is more than occasionally glimpsed -- to pose his questions and provide voice-over narration and droll asides.

The director, who sounds like an upbeat Steve Buscemi, has an ease with people that draws them out. Everyone he speaks with, from astrophysicists to writer-performers (Julia Sweeney) and Hollywood filmmakers (Irvin Kershner), is articulate and presents a strong point of view. But as the film jumps from sound bite to sound bite and topic to topic, it never builds a sustained or truly involving conversation.

Instead, "Nature" is defined by its hopeful juxtaposition of clashing ideas on humanity and the cosmos, voiced not only by scientists, artists and philosophers but by representatives of many religions, among them Christian wrestlers, Tibetan monks and Stonehenge Druids.

Nygard, who made the documentary "Trekkies" and whose TV work includes editing "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and directing "The Office," took on a Herculean task with this project: cutting 450 hours of footage -- 175 interviews over four years of globe-trotting -- into a feature-length doc. With co-producer/editor Paul Tarantino, he has shaped the well-shot material into a quick-moving piece that abounds in energy. If its summary approach is less than penetrating, its underlying message of tolerance and open-mindedness is commendable.

Opens: Friday, June 18 (New York); Friday, July 2 (Los Angeles) (Walking Shadows)
Screenwriter-director: Roger Nygard
Producers-editors: Roger Nygard, Paul Tarantino
Composer/co-producer: Billy Sullivan
No rating, 94 minutes