'Almighty' Sequel: Without a Prayer

Despite its rank as the costliest comedy ever made,
Despite its rank as the costliest comedy ever made, "Evan Almighty" fails to make a splash. (Universal Pictures Via Ap)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

In "Evan Almighty" Mr. God goes to Washington.

Frank Capra, stop rolling in your grave. At least they cared enough to steal from the very best, as the new Steve Carell comedy labors mightily to re-create the sublime pleasures of Capra's humane and vivid populist rousers.

Now that would truly be a miracle.

If you've ever wondered what would happen if the Old Testament Jahweh was disguised as a twinkly-eyed 70-year-old African American dressed for tennis, here's your answer. If you hunger to see Carell fall-down-go-boom a lot, here's your movie. If you think John Goodman as a Kartoony-Korrupt-Kongressman sounds like a chuckle, head to the multiplex. Like birds? Want to see lots of 'em? Here you go. And, finally, if you yearn to see the Great Fairfax, Va., dam crack and spill millions of gallons of H2O on all points between it and the U.S. Capitol -- so long, Arlington County! -- you're in for some pretty big rib-ticklin'!

The frail idea that supports the most expensive comedy ever made ($210 million) is that a freshman congressman of good-hearted earnestness but unbelievable naivete (Carell) is designated by God (Morgan Freeman, so damn twinkly he could put the night sky out of business) as Noah: The Sequel. The first dead giveaway is a clock radio that reads Gen. 4:16 every morning. The next is the arrival of hand tools and several tons of gopherwood. Next: all those animals, two by two. Hmmm, is this a trend or has life indeed gone all biblical for Carell's poor Evan Baxter?

For a time the movie tracks two plots: Evan's malleability in the halls of Congress where the Big Schmooze himself, Goodman as Committee Chairman Long, maneuvers him into supporting a bill that would -- get this -- allow developers to build on national parks. The schlub is so dumb that he doesn't see through the ruse, nor does his knuckleheaded staff. (And why would a supposed smart operator such as Long put his own name on the bill? His smarter deal would be to get Baxter to front it by himself!)

In the second plot, Evan is dealing with Mr. G's inflexible decision to turn him into the boat-building harbinger of wet doom, a job he doesn't want. But gradually the blow-dried congressman is turned into a shaggy-haired, robe-wearing Marine. There's a lot of oops-I-hit-my-thumb humor, for those three of you who enjoy watching thumbs get hit.

I couldn't help but think, while watching this lame, long, thin sequence, of a similar one in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." In that one, another suburbanite (Richard Dreyfuss) is caught in the grip of a similar undefiable obsession imposed by forces on high: to build the image of a mountain in the center of his tract house, no matter what his wife, kids and neighbors thought. The Spielberg sequence is sheer genius (I saw it again recently on cable) -- it's both funny and poignant at once, visually alive and a compelling portrait of a man obsessed, a family riven and a society appalled, while never losing touch with an overall sense of ominous change approaching.

But the point isn't that Spielberg is a great director and the ungifted Tom ("Patch Adams") Shadyac a hack, it's that Spielberg seized the possibilities of the medium while Shadyac sees nothing but the script.

Shadyac, who directed the previous incarnation "Bruce Almighty," doesn't even seem to grasp what's special about Carell. In the great "40-Year-Old Virgin," Judd Apatow used the comic actor's thin, quavery voice, earnest mien, awesome repression and fundamental decency to great effect; in affairs of the heart and glands, his squeamishness and lack of self-confidence were hysterical. Shadyac seems to think he's a physical comedian and wastes almost half an hour on the endless I-hit-my-thumb stuff. Then he diverts to animal humor and uses the two-by-twoing of the world's species in downtown D.C. and suburban Virginia for over-labored poop and flutter jokes of no weight and increasing inefficiency.

In fact, Carell was foolish to jump from Apatow's shrewd, adult comic sense to Shadyac's family-oriented fuzzy-lib sanctimony. When Shadyac directs an essentially undirectable force of nature like Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, it's their talent that carries the picture, and he just stays out of the way. A quieter number like Carell needs to be used astutely and precisely so that the subtleties of face, tone and body can come to play. But no, Shadyac is too busy having him wipe that white splash off his shoulder.

With the exception of Wanda Sykes, as Evan's saucy office manager, none of the supporting characters registers. Even the genuinely great Freeman is doing an old act by old numbers and counting his bucks, though most absurd is the wastage of Goodman as the nuance-free congressman. The big guy could have phoned it in from Miami.

And finally, the flood. Oh, I know it's a fantasy, it's a joke, nobody should take it seriously. The expensive mayhem by tsunami that Shadyac unleashes is portrayed as comic and casualty-free, but of course adults can't help but be disturbed by imagery of a catastrophe -- that would cost many thousands of lives -- being dismissed so casually. These aren't the times for such cavalier treatment and Shadyac seems to have forgotten that the flood was the original weapon of mass destruction.

Evan Almighty (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for rude humor and mild peril.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company