'Bruce Almighty': Thou Shalt Not Honor Vanity Productions

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2003

If the road to Hell is paved with self-deluding good intentions, then the makers of the appalling Jim Carrey comedy "Bruce Almighty" are headed to the Devil's rotisserie for an eternity as gyros.

Something between an indiscretion and an atrocity, in the key of that most human yet loathsome of self-indulgences, vanity, the movie now and then shakes a laugh out of the sky. It's pretty funny when, for example, the omnipotent Carrey makes a pompous anchorman talk goofy on television. But more often the movie is a love boat run ashore on a beach of cynicism: It wants you to love it; it wants you to love Jim Carrey; it wants you to love God. If you're against the film, it seems to argue, then you're against God!

We'll let the chips fall where they may on that one, but the movie has a singular unpleasantness to it. Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, who is the "funny" reporter at a Buffalo TV news operation. He thinks he's up for the next shot at anchor; when he's turned down, he freaks, goes nuts on the air and finds himself unemployed. Nolan rages at fate -- he thinks he's Job, not understanding that he's merely jobless. He vents his fury at God Himself. So that august gentleman, in the guise of kindly Morgan Freeman in a white suit, decides to (chuckle, chuckle) Teach Him a Lesson! Does He send a plague of locusts? Nah: He promotes Nolan to His own lofty position, then goes on vacation.

Jim Carrey as Supreme Being? It works out just about as you'd expect: cheesy, mean, crazed, with too many butt jokes. What else would you expect from a God who got laughs by making faces his whole life?

That's the movie's single, infantile strand of humor: Carrey using his powers for small, juvenile gestures. He causes a monkey to fly from the butt of a miscreant. He makes the wind blow up an attractive woman's dress to show her butt (butt butt butt!). He makes, as stated, the anchorman talk as if he's got a mouthful of mothballs (the rare, no-butt joke). If this is the point of the film and its primal appeal, why involve God at all? Why not just have Bruce encounter an alien who gives him some advanced mind- and universe-control gizmo?

And in fact the involvement with the Big Guy is a complete mistake: It miswires the movie toward serious discomfort. In the '30s and '40s, the celestial intervention gambit was a standard Hollywood trope, probably reaching its apotheosis in "It's a Wonderful Life" of 1946, which "Bruce Almighty" has the audacity (or should that be the dementia?) to evoke, in smug self-comparison.

But the world was different then. The idea that God could pay attention to this or that middle-class American's particular dilemma was a quaint reflection of middle-class America's sense of cosmic centrality. This is not to condemn those people, for all available information then seemed to confirm the idea that to be white and middle-class was the utter point of God's plan. That was certainly the thrust of Big Media and Big Entertainment in those days. And if you were those two things, but unhappy, it was a small step to imagine that God Himself, in a white, foggy evanescence of Heaven as the top floor of the skyscraper, would notice and send a helper down to fix the problem!

Hello, it's all different now. We have, by the media's penetration of every last tragic bog and slum, a complete awareness of the world's true condition, and it's all but impossible to maintain the illusion that God's central work is comforting the comfortable. If you're going to mandate God's attention, you've got to invent something a little more profound than mid-career blahs. So in the film, you sense a kind of secret narcissism at play: God is paying attention because he knows Bruce is Jim Carrey, who gets $25 million a pic. Somehow, that feels almost indecent from the upshot.

Another quease-inducing factor: It's also not difficult to see this film as a bit of self-therapy for its star. After the mega-flop of "The Majestic," Carrey is desperate for a winner. How could he miss, one might ask cynically, by wrapping himself in common piety and pretending to suffer a lesson in humility?

Yet again, that insistence feels somewhat indecent. The secret self-therapeutic arc of the film is how Jim Carrey found reconciliation with his gift. He could always be funny, just like Bruce Nolan, the character he plays, but he wanted more, not realizing what a gift had been given him. So he almost squandered it in bitterness; he almost lost his job and the woman he loved (Jennifer Aniston, completely charmless). So the film documents his acceptance of . . . the true nature of his genius!

As this works out practically in the plot, it yields little Sunday school dramas of temptation and confusion. After rigging the universe to give himself the anchor job, Bruce gives himself all the things he wants and -- how trite -- finds something lacking. Could it be that if you get stuff without earning it, you feel crummy? But the movie never acknowledges this, preferring to express his sense of desolation in romantic terms, a function of the lost relationship with the un-incandescent Aniston. Thus the treacly moment of epiphany toward which the movie obviously builds is even less dramatically vivid than it might have been.

Who the hell is responsible for this? Oh, the lamentable Tom Shadyac, director of "Patch Adams," that's who, the auteur of that cloying, self-congratulatory, self-obsessed Robin Williams vehicle. God almighty! Lord love a duck! God help us all!

Bruce Almighty (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for vulgar humor.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company