by David Cornelius
I’m perplexed at the very idea of the existence of “Evan Almighty.” The film is a sequel to a highly popular comedy, and yet neither of its two main stars return. Instead, the follow-up takes a minor, unlikable character from the original and promotes him to the lead spot. It would be as if William Atherton was suddenly granted the lead in “Die Hard 2” or “Ghostbusters 2.”But “Even Almighty” is a special case: that minor, unlikable character was played by Steve Carell, whose career was just about to skyrocket as the first movie hit theaters. More importantly, Carell managed to be the best thing about “Bruce,” as his conceited Evan Baxter character repeatedly upstaged Jim Carrey, leaving us with the movie’s only truly memorable scene. So for a second go, Universal looked to that guy who got all the big laughs.
"All ark, no bite. Or something equally punny."
And good for Carell. If anyone deserves to get promoted to tentpole flick-carrying leading man, it’s this affable, natural comic. But did he have to be saddled with such a lazy, sloppy, utterly bland comedy, one from those masters of middle-of-the-road lameness, director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekerk? This marks their fourth collaboration. Consider the first three: “The Nutty Professor,” “Patch Adams,” and “Bruce Almighty.” Separately, they are also responsible for the “Ace Ventura” films, “Barnyard,” “Dragonfly,” “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist,” “Liar Liar,” and “Nothing to Lose.” From these titles alone, you now know exactly what to expect in “Evan Almighty” - thin, flat, obvious comedy peppered with clunky feel-good sappiness.
The problem with making a movie about Evan Baxter yet still make him the hero is that you have to change everything about the character. And so we get Evan Baxter, Family Man. He’s your stereotypical nice guy who loves his wife and kids, even if he sometimes spends a little too much time at work. (In other words, this is about as original as the Shadyac/Oedekerk tag team can get.) As the movie opens, we discover Evan has just been elected into the House of Representatives - although I’m not sure which gaffe is more ridiculous, that elections are apparently held in the summer, that a Congressional candidate would be allowed to keep his position as a news anchor during his campaign, or that a single freshman Congressman from Buffalo would monopolize national news coverage of a mid-term election. But this is a Tom Shadyac comedy, one that frequently seems to confuse the workings of the House and the Senate, so I suppose all three will get a pass.
Anyway. The moment Evan promises his children he’ll join them for a hiking trip this weekend is precisely the moment that the audience realizes he’ll get too backed up with problems at work and have to renege on that promise. And the moment a powerful Congressman (John Goodman) requests Evan co-signs a land act bill is precisely the moment that the audience realizes the land-act bill and the senior Congressman are up to no good. And so on.
God (Morgan Freeman) returns, casually revealing himself to Evan. His request: build an ark. At first Evan refuses, and that’s when God turns into a kooky trickster, forcing Evan’s beard to grow at preposterous speed (it’s a gag lifted whisker-for-whisker from “The Santa Clause”) and convincing him to wear an ancient Noah-style robe. Jokes revolve around Evan’s bizarre appearance and the arrival of hundreds of animals that take to following him everywhere. Naturally, his erratic behavior endangers his job and strains his relationship with his family, but perseverance wins out, Evan becomes Noah, and good things happen.
If “Bruce Almighty” wanted to be the new “Oh, God!” in tone, “Evan Almighty” wants to be it in plot. Evan, like John Denver’s mild mannered supermarket manager, becomes increasingly frustrated by God’s demands, struggles to avoid embarrassment, and finally discovers an inner peace through God’s message.
In “Oh, God!”, the message was along the lines of “hey, relax, the Lord is still around in these cynical times.” With “Evan,” the message is, um, well… I don’t think the movie even knows. It tries, sort of, for multiple angles, coming up short on each. There’s a curious scene in which God explains to Evan the true meaning of the Noah’s Ark story. It is not a fable of God’s wrath, you see, but instead a way for God to bring Noah and his wife closer together through tribulation. I’m not sure if we should be turning to the guy who wrote “Kung Pow” for theological interpretation (especially since Oedekerk’s version of the story means God killed millions just so two people could grow closer as a couple), but I guess we see the point. Through all this testing-of-faith stuff, Evan and his wife (a depressingly underused Lauren Graham, stuck in a woefully anonymous role) become closer than ever. So have faith, the movie preaches, and we will get by.
Fair enough. Mixed with this, however, is a message about the environment, and how suburban development takes away from the wonders of nature. It’s a good message, a nice message, but in the hands of Shadyac and Oedekerk, it’s gawky and ham-fisted, crammed into the plot only whenever space will allow, and as such it seems too random. The script then offers no solutions - we’re not even sure if Evan’s still driving his gas-guzzling Hummer by movie’s end - and simply shoves in these environmentalist nuggets as time-fillers in between all the poop jokes. (The film even ends with a massive flood of Washington, D.C., but treats it only as a chance for a special effects spectacle and not as anything related to the morality of the story itself.)
Our third entry in the muddled morals department is that of “acts of random kindness,” or “ARK,” as the film semi-cleverly puts it. Because the filmmakers cannot trust the audience to pick up on the “be good to each other” vibes of the story itself, the script must come to a screeching halt so God can explain to Evan that the world would be better if everyone could, you know, be good to each other. Never mind that the way this movie puts it, these “acts of kindness” are more like chores on a list than the natural result of people just being inherently decent; the message stinks simply because the movie can’t find any other way of presenting it than to kneel down and talk slowly like we’re imbeciles.
Of course, treating the audience with condescension is Shadyac’s specialty, which is why jokes have to be repeated, then explained, then repeated again. There is no subtext, as the film refuses to let the audience figure out anything for themselves - even right at the end, when Evan gives a lengthy explanation of a plot point that most of us picked up on a half hour before. The screenplay makes much of its numerous sly references to Genesis 6:14, but then assumes we won’t pick up on any of them, so it has characters talk about them out loud, even when they’re alone. Other “comical” Biblical references are highlighted, then underlined, then surrounded with neon.A terrific comedy could have come from a premise like this, and all those messages surely could have found a way to fit easily into the patchwork of the story. But not here, not with “Evan Almighty,” a comedy content to use bird crap and crotch hits as running gags, a film desperate to nail down a catchphrase (in this case: the utterly lame “do the dance!”) instead of solidifying its character and story needs. This is a tale that requires a gentleness, not a shrill action finale, and while the cast manages to pull a few slight chuckles from the proceedings (Carell’s nimble comic timing rescues several scenes), it’s not enough to keep “Evan” from being little else than flimsy hackwork.
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originally posted: 06/22/07 00:00:00