And “Bruce” begat “Evan”—not, perhaps, the sort of genealogical statement you might find in Genesis, but one that’s entirely predictable in sequel-prone Hollywood. So Jim Carrey’s 2003 hit “Bruce Almighty”—the uplifting slapstick comedy about a Buffalo TV newsman who’s endowed by God (Morgan Freeman) with his omnipotence while he goes off on vacation, but misuses the powers to benefit himself and take vengeance on his enemies (with baleful results, of course, until he learns his lesson)—has spawned this follow-up, in which Steve Carell, Carrey’s rival for the anchor spot in the earlier picture, moves up to the starring role. He plays Evan Baxter, a brainless fellow who’s leaving the station to move to Washington, D.C., having been elected to the House of Representatives on the bland promise to “Change the World.” (One of the few credible elements of the script is the fact that the congressman is a hapless dunce.) Apparently as a result of an off-the-cuff prayer for help in fulfilling his pledge, God (Freeman again) assigns him the task of building a new ark, a second Noah as it were.
The rest of “Evan Almighty” juxtaposes this silly plot—in which the guy reluctantly undertakes the project, enlisting the help of his initially incredulous wife (Lauren Graham) and three sons (Johnny Simmons, Graham Phillips and Jimmy Bennett) while seeing his beard grow and his hair turn gray as a result of divine intervention, which also compels him to wear a tattered biblical-style robe—with another centered back on the Hill, where Congressman Baxter is drafted by a corrupt senior colleague, Congressman Long (John Goodman), to co-sponsor a bill that will allow development of national parks by private firms.
Steve Oedekerk’s script manages to bring these two story threads together at the close, linking a moral about general do-goodism with a warning about the need to protect the environment. But the mix of influences results in a strange brew. There’s the puerile biblical farce, of course—with lots of unfunny pratfalls by Carell as he stumbles around and repeatedly hits his thumb with hammers (the first groin joke, it may be noted, comes within five minutes). But to this is added a strong “Dr. Doolittle” element, as pairs of animals congregate around Evan (cue an avalanche of bird poop sight gags, the first once again in the initial few minutes). In God’s teaching that one should engage in what he calls “acts of random kindness,” you may hear echoes of the awful “Play It Forward.” And all of this is tossed together with what can only be termed a silly rip-off of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in the Baxter-Long thread.
The result is a soggy mess, flabbily directed by Tom Shadyac, in which no one is at his best. Carell is a funny fellow, but here he’s playing a doltish boob who, unlike his character on “The Office,” has no edge or pathos. (It took Eddie Murphy a few years to sink to the level of this sort of kiddie doo-doo; Carell’s descended to it immediately.) And with the spotlight almost constantly on him, he has to shoulder the albatross pretty much on his own. Freeman, with very little screen time, coasts through his embarrassing scenes on a smile and a shrug; Graham is wasted as the stock supportive wife; the kids are a bland trio; and Goodman brings little to the party besides bulk and bluster. Auxiliary laughs are supposed to be provided by Baxter’s trio of congressional staffers, played by John Michael Higgins, Jonah Hill and Wanda Sykes. But the first two are saddled with thoroughly lame material, while Sykes, doing her oversized Thelma Ritter routine as the congressman’ feisty, wisecracking secretary, performs what’s essentially a stand-up comedy act composed of a cascade of brusque but pallid one-liners, shouted very loudly in the apparent hope that volume will compensate for lack of quality. Even Jon Stewart stumbles in a “Daily Show” cameo, offering a couple of nasty comments that wouldn’t pass muster in a Don Rickles routine.
The behind-the-scenes contributions are no more impressive. Ian Baker’s glass cinematography is compounded by Scott Hill’s lumpish editing (which allows far too many repetitive montages), while John Debney’s sappily inspirational score, complete with heavenly choir, is positively painful.
And the special effects are—surprisingly for so big and expensive a picture—mediocre. The combination of real and CGI animals is handled well enough, but the big finale is a real bust. Of course, since this is a movie about an ark, you have to have the thing borne aloft on waves at the close, leading to a huge (but crudely executed) special-effects extravaganza that blithely ignores the extent of the damage being done in favor of empty-headed comic reactions. It ends “Evan Almighty” on an appropriately waterlogged note that returns us to God’s notion of “Acts of Random Kindness,” which—if you think about it—should logically be “Random Acts of Kindness.”
Of course, then the phrase wouldn’t allow for the use of the acronym “ARK” at the close. It would instead be “RAK,” which would work in this case only if one pronounced it “wreck”—because this ark turns out to be a bigger catastrophe than the Titanic. The ship, that is, not the movie. To think it’s any good would require a supreme act of faith.