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Movie Review: Bruce Almighty

Bruce Almighty
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Written by Steve Koren, Mark O’Keefe, and Steve Oedekerk
Universal, 2003

Jim Carrey had, nine years previously, become the go-to guy for comedy after a string of hits in 1994 made him one of the top-paid performers of the era: Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber came out of nowhere that year to make the In Living Color alum a star seemingly overnight.

But what really distinguished Carrey from 1994-2003 was the “transformation” comedy, in which a normal guy has his own Jekyll and Hyde experience: The Mask, Liar, Liar, and Me, Myself, & Irene became the trademarks of his work, culminating with his third collaboration with director Shadyac, who also guided Eddie Murphy in the Jekyll/Hyde-ish Nutty Professor remake.

In Bruce Almighty, small-time Buffalo reporter Bruce Nolan (Carrey) is tired of his fluff pieces and wants the anchor job, only to see it go to his rival Evan Baxter (Steve Carell, whose small but scene-stealing part here was the launching point for his current slam-bang career after his relatively small Daily Show success).  His girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston) is as supportive as can be, loves him as he is, but is constantly second place to Bruce’s ambition.  He blows up during a live report when he is sandbagged with the news of Evan’s promotion, and is fired.  Bruce eventually blames God for his crappy life.  And in high-concept fashion, God is listening and wants to give the failed reporter a meeting.

God (Morgan Freeman) grants Bruce his powers, keeping the problems local, Buffalo only.  At first, Bruce abuses the powers to do anything, parting a sea of cars to make his commute easier, blowing up women’s dresses, and giving his girlfriend the best pleasure of her life.  Then he uses it to advance his career, creating world events where he can ”magically” be there to report on them first, eventually derailing Evan’s anchor job and taking his position.  But God’s powers have a burden: He starts hearing everyone’s avalanche of prayers (first hearing them, then receiving them via e-mail) and doesn’t know how to deal with them effectively, eventually just giving everyone what they want.  Grace is emotionally neglected, and she leaves Bruce, making him reconsider what is important.

Unlike Liar, Liar, where the one-joke premise had a lot of mileage and created funny dialogue, Bruce Almighty suffers from being nearly all sight-gag oriented.  Once you see Bruce’s powers, and the fact that he can do anything, there’s not really much room for surprise.  The writers (and Carrey) struggle to come up with anything quotable.  It is a sweet movie with good messages, but you go to a high-concept film like this looking to crack up laughing, and you only get a couple of big laughs from the whole thing.

It’s also way too simplistic: when everyone in Buffalo gets everything they want through prayer, surely the screenwriters could have come up with something that would have explored how that might throw the world into a contradictory spiral, how one man’s prayers conflict with another’s.  But it’s far too lazy to really delve into something interesting.

In 2003, Bruce Almighty went on to make a little over $240 million, putting it at #5 that year.  It’s still in the top 50 in all-time domestic box office, once at 29th.  We’ll see if Carell, who takes over in Evan Almighty, has the same box office clout this summer.  My guess is we’ll see a modest hit nowhere near its predecessor.

Next: Evan Almighty

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