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Bruce Almighty (May 22/03)

I'm not entirely sure if they still do this, but back in the '80s, some Christian group published their own version of Archie comics. They were officially sanctioned by the folks at Archie, and followed the Riverdale gang as they prayed their way through high school: Jughead eschewed hamburgers in favor of the bible, Reggie was a nice guy, etc. Bruce Almighty, the new Jim Carrey flick, takes a similar approach to its subject; it's less a piece of entertainment and more a lecture on the value of prayer.

Carrey stars as Bruce Nolan, a reporter stuck doing comedic human interest pieces (the first time we see him, for example, he's covering the unveiling of the world's biggest cookie). He's got a sweet girlfriend named Grace (Jennifer Aniston), but is more concerned with his career than with sustaining his relationship. After a series of unfortunate occurrences (he loses his job and Grace leaves him), Bruce takes out his anger on God (played by Morgan Freeman) - a move that intrigues the omnipotent deity. God challenges Bruce to assume all his powers, with only two caveats: He can't tell anyone or attempt to mess with free will. After giving himself a fancy car and parting a bowl of red soup, Bruce begins to realize that yes, with great power comes great responsibility.

It's a shame at how awful Bruce Almighty becomes, because the first half is actually pretty promising. Though Carrey plays the character without an ounce of subtlety (he's in full Ace Ventura mode here), there are a lot of laughs to be had in the opening sequences. Notable standouts include Bruce's creative way of flipping the bird to an obnoxious coworker and a complete meltdown on camera after learning he was passed over for a promotion. There's even some funny stuff in the film's midsection, involving Bruce's glee with his newfound powers - though it's probably best not to think about some of the ramifications of Bruce's decisions (the aftermath of his decision to pull the moon closer to Earth, for example, is barely touched upon).

But there comes a point in the film, somewhere around the one-hour mark, where Bruce Almighty turns into a colossal bore. The movie abandons any pretense of being a silly comedy, and turns into a seemingly neverending sermon on the greatness of God. Carrey and the three writers (Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe, and Carrey pal Steve Oedekerk) were presumably so afraid of offending religious people that they went completely overboard and have turned the film into an infomercial for Christianity. There is absolutely nothing wrong with churning out a flick that uses religion intelligently, but Bruce Almighty tackles the subject with such blinding reverence that it's impossible to take the movie seriously. Kevin Smith's Dogma, though it was overlong by about 45 minutes, never succumbed to lecturing the audience; the film instead took an honest look at the fallacies of the bible and of the Catholic Church. But by turning the film into a sappy, eye-rolling cheesefest, the makers of Bruce Almighty have created a movie that's genuinely offensive (unlike Dogma, which had the courage to pose some real questions).

And it's too bad, considering the impressive cast that's surrounding Carrey. Aniston essentially falls back on her sitcom training here, but she fares well - right up until the sequence in which she's required to tearfully ask for guidance from God. But then, Meryl Streep herself would've been hard-pressed to perform a scene like that without looking ridiculous. Freeman brings his usual effortless charm to the role, but he's barely given anything to do (which is somewhat surprising, given that he's, you know, playing God and all). The Daily Show's Steve Carell pops up in a small part as Bruce's rival at the television station, providing some laughs in a revenge sequence (Bruce decides to get even with the man by forcing him to spout gibberish during a newscast). Finally, the great Philip Baker Hall has a thankless role as Bruce's boss, and though he hardly has much to work with, he does manage to turn in yet another compelling performance.

It's hard to imagine anyone enjoying Bruce Almighty other than undiscriminating religious folks; the film is just too heavy-handed to appeal to anyone else. It certainly marks Carrey's worst movie to date (and no, I'm not forgetting that dreadful Ace Ventura sequel), and provides a perfectly good excuse for the actor to focus solely on dramatic roles.

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