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Bruce Almighty   C-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Tom Shadyac
Writers: Steve Oedekerk, Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe
Cast: Jim Carrey, Jennifer Aniston, Morgan Freeman, Mark Adair-Rios, Catherine Bell, Sally Kirkland, Lisa Ann Walter, Steven Carell, Philip Baker Hall.

Review by Rob Vaux

Bruce Almighty exemplifies the fatal lure of high concept pictures. Having come up with a nifty idea, the filmmakers feel that that their job is done, and refuse to devote any more energy to developing it. Why should they bother? They've got the hook, which should be enough to make the trailer attractive. Once they've convinced us to buy the ticket, there's no need to deliver on our expectations, is there? It doesn't help that star Jim Carrey doesn't require good material to be funny. If Bruce Almighty can get a few mindless laughs from his facial spasms, then a script full of dead weight won't hurt the bottom line.

And rest assured, Bruce Almighty has very little else on its mind. Its premise suggests something substantive, but the half-baked development leaves it listless and dull. You can almost hear the writer's pitch, reduced to autistic simplicity. Four words, 14 letters: Jim Carrey is God. That's it. That's all it's got. Enough to entice us perhaps, but precious little to truly entertain us; not without putting more thought into it. Beyond the occasional snicker, all we can do is count the missed opportunities piling up.

At least there are opportunities, which is more than most of Carrey's films can say. His TV journalist Bruce Nolan is a self-absorbed me-monkey, too busy martyring himself to realize how good he has it. When he loses his job after an on-camera meltdown (one of the funniest sequences in the film), his pent-up bile has nowhere to go but up. Straight up that is, to an easygoing God (Morgan Freeman) who's tired of listening to the man whine. So He grants Bruce His powers for awhile -- puts him in charge to see if it's as easy as he thinks -- while He takes a much-needed vacation. Naturally, Bruce uses his newfound abilities to correct his own tiny problems, living the high life without realizing the devastating effects his omnipotence has on the world at large.

The plot proceeds along an awkward arc of the sinner redeemed, and director Tom Shadyac keeps the tone unduly sweet the entire time. Personifying God always runs the risk of offending sensitive viewers, even in an endeavor as slight as this one, and Bruce Almighty constantly errs on the side of caution. Unfortunately, that seriously retards its comic growth, closing the door on a lot of ripe potential. It has no shortage of places to go with its concept; it simply chooses not to. Fresh gags float to the surface regularly, only to be grimly discarded with cursory attention. In one sequence, Bruce sets up a computer to help him answer millions of incoming prayers, then decides in a fit of indolence to grant them all, sight unseen. The possibilities of such a setup are delicious, but the payoff has all the zip of a wet noodle. So too does Bruce's revenge on his co-workers, his efforts to boost his career, and all the other complications the first-draft script can cook up. A few inspire chuckles; most just leave us flat.

Instead, we're left with Carrey's trademark mugging, and a series of special effects that play more like stage magician's tricks than summer spectacle. Shadyac leans too heavily on both, hoping that they can pull Bruce Almighty to the finish line. Carrey has the touch of course, but the material is too repetitive to let him find his rhythm. As for the effects, the less said about them the better. Shadyac spends so much time trying to milk every laugh he can from his lead that he ends up ignoring a very capable supporting cast. The number of actors going to waste here is embarrassing: Jennifer Aniston, who has nothing to do as Bruce's long-suffering girlfriend; Philip Baker Hall, wandering around like he's on break from a better film; Sally Kirkland, who comes and goes so quickly you hardly know she's there; and Freeman, continuing his seemingly endless parade of roles he's far too good for. At least Steven Carell, playing Bruce's smarmy news-anchor rival, gets in some good laughs.

Oddly, the film's satire of local news plays better than most of the divine stuff, with pod people broadcasters (including a faux-ethnic newswoman about as Hispanic as Davy Crockett) covering borderline psychotics in soullessly cheerful puff pieces. That Bruce uses his powers to dominate such a shallow, empty profession speaks to his pettiness in ways the film never capitalizes on. Had they further explored the notion, it might have made an amusing movie in and of itself. Instead, it just quietly peters out, as is the case with far too much of Bruce Almighty. Like its protagonist, it's too willing to ignore its assets. We don't ask much from our summer movies; a little effort should not be beyond this one's grasp.

Review published 05.23.2003.

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