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Bruce Almighty

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/09/07 12:05:41

"Pray for better jokes."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There’s a quaint innocence about “Bruce Almighty,” in the way that characters talk about God. They casually discuss God not in a modern, ironic manner filled with deep religious debate, but in a casual, glib, not-giving-it-a-second-thought way, as if they’re discussing their cousin or their goldfish. Nobody here stops to doubt the existence of a supreme being, nor does anyone pause to question if the God being mentioned is of a certain denominational variety. This movie’s God knows no religious boundaries - or if he does, nobody’s saying anything.

As there’s no clumsy moralizing in the “Touched By an Angel” or “Left Behind” kind of way, what we get here is the sort of off-the-cuff way religion used to work itself into older pictures (think “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Horn Blows At Midnight,” “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” etc.). Seeing it here again, coming from the mouths of Jim Carrey and Jennifer Aniston, takes some getting used to in these modern times. After all, it’s been a long time since Hollywood gave us “Oh, God!”

And it shows. “Bruce Almighty” really, really, really wants to be an updated “Oh, God!”, but it’s really more along the lines of, say, “Oh God! You Devil,” which, while not as bad as other Ted Wass vehicles, still wasn’t all that hot.

But the movie doesn’t fail just because it’s awkward hearing Carrey’s character, the titular Bruce Nolan, add God to any discussion without batting an eye. (Religion and faith don’t seem like two things this character would ever casually discuss if the plot didn’t require him to.) No, “Bruce Almighty” fails because it’s cheap. It gives us a cutesy premise and then never bothers to do anything clever with it. It gives us a main character we don’t like, a guy who does whatever’s easiest to get Carrey doing the same schtick he did in “Liar Liar.” And it’s just not very funny.

The plot: Bruce is Buffalo’s most popular human interest reporter, the guy sent out to cover the baking of the city’s largest cookie or the anniversary voyage of Niagra Falls’ Maid of the Mist. He’s dubbed “Wacky Bruce” by his fellow reporters, and he hates it. He’d rather be anchoring, not clowning around in the post-sports wrap-up.

An anchoring position does open up, but the job’s stolen by a jerky rival reporter (Steve Carell of “The Daily Show,” who provides the only genuinely funny performance in the film). Anyway, Bruce blames God for his misfortune, calling the guy mean and incompetent. When Bruce steps in a puddle, gets stuck in traffic, or is beaten after trying to help a homeless man, it’s all God’s fault, right?

That’s when he gets a visit from God himself (Morgan Freeman, perhaps the only actor this side of George Burns who could believably fill the role). He gives Bruce all the powers of a deity and sets him loose on the world, the hope being that Bruce will learn a lesson on how hard it is to be God, or something.

Since Bruce is such a self-centered guy, he uses his new powers not to help others, but to help himself. He causes freak accidents to occur wherever he’s reporting, so he can land exclusive coverage. He causes Carrell’s character to go tongue-tied on air. He teaches his dog to use the toilet, ha ha. And when the voices of millions of prayers become too much for him to bear, he answers them in whatever way demands the least amount of work.

And all the while, we see where this is going. Bruce loses his girlfriend (Aniston) due to his selfishness, and we know he’ll realize he’s gotta work hard to get her back. His blindness toward prayer-related consequences causes troubles city-wide, and we know he’ll realize he’s gotta work hard to learn how to be a better manager. It’s the exact same formula we saw in “Liar Liar” (directed, as “Bruce” is, by Tom Shadyac): Carrey’s character must learn how to help others, not just himself.

This might have worked had the jokes not bombed quite so much - Carrey relies on broad, bland humor, while the screenplay adds groan-inducing bits like a thug who mentions the phrase “when a monkey comes out my butt” in a painfully clumsy set-up. If only the writers had thought to open up the concept beyond dog-on-toilet gags. Here’s an ordinary guy given unlimited powers, and all he does is use them to make his girlfriend’s breasts slightly larger? Yawn.

There is an interesting angle in all of this. Carrey’s “Wacky Bruce” is a guy who learns it’s okay to be the goofball, to do the light stuff, to make people laugh. In that sense, Bruce is Carrey himself, learning to avoid the deep, serious fare that he thinks people don’t like (he’s wrong). But has Carrey returned to formulaic comedy because he, like Bruce, does his best when making others laugh? Or has he returned simply because it’s in his safety zone, far away from the riskier drama of “Man On the Moon” and “The Majestic”?

I vote for the latter. “Bruce” is way too similar in tone to “Liar Liar” to be a mere coincidence. This is Jim Carrey trying yet again to win back a mass audience who got confused when he tried to go serious. And that’s a shame. Carrey works best when stretching his dramatic muscles (and comic ones, too, as evident in the underrated “Cable Guy”). But “Bruce” is a step back, the kind of movie that feels phoned in. Still, I’m not as upset that Carrey’s falling back on reliable material as I am that the material is too flat to be entertaining.

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