Right before going to see Bruce Almighty, I was complaining to my wife that it’s been too long since I saw a really great comedy. Yes, there had been some funny ones recently (Anger Management, A Mighty Wind, Down With Love), but not one that really made me double over with laughter. I hadn’t laughed recently the way I laughed at There’s Something About Mary or Groundhog Day, or even Jackass: The Movie. As it turned out, Bruce Almighty (pardon the pun) proved to be the answer to my prayers. I’ve liked star Jim Carrey’s movies in the past, but this time he outdoes himself in a hilarious story that also has a heart.
Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a Buffalo TV reporter relegated to those often cheesy “human interest” stories that run in the last five minutes of the newscast. Bruce dreams of being taken seriously and maybe even getting the anchor job he covets. Instead, that job goes to rival Evan Baxter (Steven Carell), a smug, backstabbing overachiever whom Bruce can’t stand. Around the same time, Bruce has some other problems: he has a major fight with girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston), gets beaten up by thugs, and wrecks his car. A distraught Bruce ends up on the side of the road, cursing God for the things that have gone wrong in his life. He even goes so far as to accuse God of being asleep at the wheel, of not doing His job.
Soon Bruce finds himself standing in front of God (Morgan Freeman). The Creator is more amused by Bruce’s raving than He is offended, so He decides to teach the hapless human a lesson. God endows Bruce will all His powers, to use as he sees fit. At first, Bruce develops a definite Messiah complex, blowing up women’s skirts and changing his junker car into a hot rod just for kicks. Then he decides to use his power to make up with Grace. (Their “sex” scene has to rank as one of the most unforgettable movie moments of the year so far.) Finally, he decides to claim the anchor position; by creating conveniently-timed news events, Bruce is able to exclusively cover them, thereby earning a reputation as a crack reporter. Being God is not as easy as it seems, however. There are all those prayers to listen to, plus some of Bruce’s actions have unintended consequences. God pops up now and again to offer advice and guidance.
Critics (and some audience members as well) are often critical of the term “high concept.” Used to denote a big, crowd-pleasing idea, high concept movies often suffer from a lack of depth. They’re all concept, no substance. Bruce Almighty is proof that high concept pictures can also be well-crafted and ambitious. The idea of “Jim Carrey as God” is hard to resist, and as a comedy, this is a serious laugh-getter, filled with moments that made me howl in delight. Much like Groundhog Day, the movie is endlessly inventive in the way it executes its concept. One scene – during which Bruce gets revenge against rival Evan – made me laugh so hard I could barely breathe. (No hyperbole there, either.) His manner of revenge is funny enough, but director Tom Shadyac (Liar, Liar and the Ace Ventura films) lets the joke run and run and run. Sometimes you run a bit too long and a joke becomes stale; other times you keep running it to the point where it reaches a level of sublime absurdity. That’s what happens here. There’s plenty of smart comic filmmaking at play throughout the movie.
If Bruce Almighty were just aiming for the funny bone, it would still be a terrific movie. What makes it really special, though, is that it takes its high concept and dares to do something with it. The key here is in the supporting performances. Jennifer Aniston at first appears to be stuck in a generic thankless girlfriend role. As the movie goes on, we see her character develop in surprising ways. Grace, it turns out, has a lot of faith and prays regularly. When Bruce discovers this – and learns the content of her prayers – it changes his perspective on their relationship for the better. I don’t want to give away too much of what I’m talking about for fear of ruining the impact. What I will say is that Aniston has a very emotional role, and she nails it. The actress has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to be funny and sympathetic simultaneously (on “Friends” and in The Good Girl), and that ability proves to be vital to this movie. In the end, the relationship between Bruce and Grace hits a very tender note that kind of proves the old adage that those who pray together stay together.
Then there’s God himself. Played with great dignity by Morgan Freeman, God is presented the way I always imagined Him: kind, patient, caring - and with a sense of humor. God’s role in this film is more subtle than you might expect. He is not portrayed in an overly spiritual sense, nor is he mere comic relief. The God shown here is a beacon of quiet wisdom, fully aware of his power and therefore in no need to flaunt it. There’s a wonderful, inspiring moment when God defines real miracles to Bruce. “When a teenager says no to drugs and yes to an education – that’s a miracle,” he offers as one example. I’m always kind of surprised how irreverent many Hollywood movies are toward religion. There’s a sneering concept that often works its way in. Not here. God is presented as one worth believing in.
As for Jim Carrey…well, he impresses me more and more all the time. In his earlier movies, the comedian was content to make funny faces and act goofy. He’s able to play solid characters too, which is what he does here. Best of all, he’s achieved a balance between the two, hitting the human moments without sacrificing the comedy and vice versa. Carrey is hilarious in this movie, and he makes Bruce’s burgeoning faith feel real (and touching) without being heavy-handed. In a time when there are few comic geniuses, he’s one of them.
Sometimes combining the desire to make people laugh with the desire to have a meaningful message creates a disaster. Bruce Almighty finds the right notes, though. I laughed loud and hard throughout the movie, but also found myself moved by the sweet message of faith contained within it. That, I suppose, makes this film the best of both worlds.
( 1/2 out of four)
Bruce Almighty is rated PG-13 for language, sexual content and some crude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.
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