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Almighty then 

Bruce gives Jim Carrey God complex

Bruce Nolan does not make a likely Job. He's on television, albeit as a Buffalo "human interest" reporter who covers frivolous stories like the world's largest cookie. He has a lovable dog and even a long-term girlfriend who looks exactly like Jennifer Aniston. And in Bruce Almighty, he's played by Jim Carrey, who, as one of Hollywood's highest-paid entertainers, isn't exactly a figure of sympathy.

Yet a string of misfortunes -- including canine incontinence and an elusive promotion -- convince Bruce that he's on heaven's shit list. Bruce Almighty gives a put-upon everyman a Divine chance to play God, making for some funny sight gags and some heavy-handed sermonizing about the nature of real miracles. Despite its provocative premise, Almighty skips the big questions about God's relationship to man to provide a strangely self-pitying subplot involving Jim Carrey's acceptance of his own career.

"God, why do you hate me?" Bruce asks when forced to wear a hair-net on the air, the first of his increasingly blasphemous string of complaints. Bruce doesn't expect to get an answer, but a mysterious message about a job offer leads to a face-to-face meeting with God (Morgan Freeman) in a deserted office building. If anyone can seem typecast in the role of Supreme Deity, it's Freeman, although the actor gives God a twinkly sense of humor as he chuckles over "The Clapper" jingle and mocks The Matrix by announcing "I'm the One."

God grants Bruce with divine powers to see if a man can do God's work any better, although he imposes two rules: Bruce can't reveal his secret, and can't tamper with free will (although the film reveals other limitations later on). Bruce scoffs until he finds he can work actual miracles, including the "parting" of a bowl of soup with Cecil B. Demille-style effects.

Almighty's funniest moments find Bruce using his omnipotence to his own advantage. He sets a romantic scene to seduce his girlfriend Grace (Aniston in predictable "Friends" mode) by wiping away clouds like a painter and making the moon bigger in the sky. Bruce tries to organize mankind's prayers by putting them on Post-It notes, only to have a yellow blizzard engulf his apartment.

Bruce advances his career by breaking major stories on the human interest beat, like when the Mark Twain Chili Cook-Off is "coincidentally" struck by a meteorite. Yet Carrey seems miscast as a TV reporter, and the actor's trademark sarcasm and intensity makes his on-air moments seem utterly insincere. Contrast him with "The Daily Show's" Steve Carell, who as Bruce's rival for the anchor's chair, intones with the perfect form of self-important blandness ("Is your child in dire jeopardy? Find out tonight!" he says on a promo). When Bruce forces him to spout gibberish duringa broadcast, Carell strikes the ideal comic balance, his mouth flapping uncontrollably while his eyes remain unaffected.

Bruce's frustrations with frivolous TV journalism find clear parallels with Carrey's own attempts to stretch dramatically, in box office disappointments like Man in the Moon or The Majestic. When Bruce moans, "I have no credibility," or God tells him, "You have the gift of bringing joy and laughter to the world," the script refers to the actor as much as the character.

In The Truman Show, Carrey proved he can contain his berserk shtick and still give an effecting, human performance. But Almighty wants Carrey both ways, setting him up as a huggably average Joe but allowing him the fits of hostility, flailing body language and maniacal pronunciation. When Bruce has an on-air meltdown, he contorts his face like rubber and elongates the word "eroding" until it's all but unintelligible.

Carrey's anarchic outbursts can be very funny, but they're a far cry from average behavior. He's most likable when we're not required to like him, or when Almighty hammers at how lovable he is, giving Carrey new catch-phrases like "B-E-A-utiful!" and "S'good!" and even letting Freeman quote his Ace Ventura line "Alrighty then."

At least Almighty never gets as insufferable as Liar, Liar, even though Tom Shadyac directed both films. Shadyac relies heavily on bathroom humor, and even has a monkey leap in and out of the butt of a bullying hoodlum, but the film's attempts at sweetness are its truly shameless moments. Grace is a saintly school teacher, and Almighty spends most of its time worrying over her relationship with Bruce.

It's a minor miracle that Almighty can avoid so many of the big issues built into its premise. The comedy has a chance to question why God allows human suffering, but instead offers a personal-growth story that's suspiciously similar to Groundhog Day. In both films, a self-interested TV reporter gets an otherworldly opportunity that he first abuses, then seizes to become a better person.

In a memorable shot near the end of The Truman Show, Carrey seemed to walk on water before confronting his creator, a vainglorious TV producer. Carrey literally walks on water and talks to God in Bruce Almighty, making one wonder if he's trying to tell us something. Have his initials "J.C." gone to his head? Bruce Almighty presents a movie star frustrated by his own fallibility. He can do anything but make people love him.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com


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