Early on in this Jim Carrey flick his character–Bruce Nolan, an over-the-top Buffalo TV reporter who wants desperately to get a news anchor job–tells his live-in girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston) that he’s “not okay with a mediocre job” and “not okay with a mediocre life.” But apparently the star is all too content making mediocre movies–or worse. “Bruce Almighty” is supposed to represent the comic’s return to flat-out, hysterical form after the disappointing results of the more serious “The Majestic,” and it’s certainly true that under the direction of Tom Shadyac, who helmed both “Ace Ventura” flicks as well as “Liar Liar,” Carrey goes all out with the wild- and craziness here. But in its own way this movie is as sappy and preachy as “The Majestic” was; it just tries to balance that with lots of pratfalls and coarseness. But the mixture proves to be even more toxic than the unalloyed self-importance of the previous picture. Simply put, “Bruce” is mighty bad, like a lowbrow version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” rewritten by the Farrelly Brothers for a middle-aged Jerry Lewis.
The premise of the picture–rather unsavory and vaguely blasphemous, if you think about it–is that Nolan, fired after cracking up on air after being passed over for promotion, is summoned by a dapper, white-suited deity (Morgan Freeman) and endowed with all His powers while the Supreme Being goes off on vacation. Bruce proceeds to use his new abilities to improve his own life in ways that also wreak vengeance on those who have wronged him. But, of course, things don’t go as he’d hoped: soon his relationship with Grace is on the rocks (and being unable to interfere with free will, he can’t prevent it from unraveling–the picture goes about as deep as “The Matrix Reloaded” did on the subject of compulsion versus human choice), and his neglect of his “divine” responsibilities leads to natural disasters and social unrest. (The way in which the picture uses these elements–floods in southeast Asia, a riot in Buffalo–is actually pretty nasty.) The upshot, it will come as no surprise, is that Bruce learns to appreciate what he’s always had and to help others rather than try to promote himself. The world might have suffered terribly, but it was all worth it, one supposes, because it’s made Bruce a Better Person.
One can imagine the idea behind the picture serving as the basis for an intriguing study of ambition and unintended consequences, had it been handled with the sort of ironic insight that Rod Serling sometimes brought to his better “Twilight Zone” stories. But we don’t get that; “Bruce Almighty” doesn’t even try for the clinical didacticism of “The Truman Show.” Instead it takes the easy road of vulgarity, “Three Stooges”-style violence and smarmy sentimentality. Carrey doesn’t “talk” through his rear end the way Ace Ventura did, for instance, but Nolan does compel one of the bad-guys–the head of a street gang that had roughed him up–to expel a monkey from his derrière. And instead of the all-too-familiar bit about an infant spraying some adult who’s trying to change a diaper, here we get a repeated gag about a dog’s indoor elimination problems; at one point we’re even treated to a sequence of Bruce carrying the mutt outside while it shoots a stream of urine directly at the audience–a truly charming moment. (It’s disturbing to imagine how much special effects expertise must have been involved in achieving it.) There are, of course, sporadically amusing touches in Carrey’s “In Loving Color”-style gyrations and rubber-faced shtick, but the individual pieces never add up to anything substantial, because at heart the picture isn’t anything more than a series of vaudeville skits stitched together under the umbrella of an idea that wasn’t all that great to begin with. What makes it worse is the fact that as Carrey maniacally portrays him, Nolan is an obnoxious jerk, hardly worthy of the sort of paternal concern that Freeman’s deity claims to have for him. (God says that he’s aiding Bruce because he’s inherently funny, but that’s just wishful thinking.) Fans of the wild and crazy Carrey will probably find his antics amusing, but they’re actually more exhausting than anything else. Freeman, second only to James Earl Jones for oracular voice and dignified posture, has been auditioning for the part of the Supreme Being over the course of many movies, and he tosses it off effortlessly. Aniston, who showed such promise in “The Good Girl,” suffers a distinct career setback, with little to do but sniffle and sigh, and Philip Baker Hall is similarly wasted as Nolan’s boss. Steven Carell fares even worse as Bruce’s rival for the anchor spot–he’s the prissy, uptight Ted Baxler type, but not nearly as funny–and if you blink you might miss Nora Dunn as another newsroom stalwart.
“Bruce Almighty” has the glassy, unreal look of so many Hollywood comedies, and from a technical perspective it’s entirely nondescript (the riot scene is especially chintzy). The tackiness of presentation is of a piece with the tackiness of the material, in which crudity is always preferred to wit and the sitcom resolution reeks of the rankest sentiment. As usual nowadays, the brainlessness continues into bits inserted into the final credits, so if you don’t want to miss anything, be forewarned not to bolt out–as you might otherwise be inclined to do.