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Bruce Almighty (2003)

In 1936, H.G. Wells elaborated on his story The Man Who Could Work Miracles in a screenplay which was filmed by Alexander Korda, with Roland Young as a little man gifted by capricious Gods (note the plural) with the power to do absolutely anything. Though rarely considered an especially humorous writer, Wells's take on the premise is not only better thought-through than Bruce Almighty but also funnier. A staunch atheist, he did not feel the need to cover himself against charges of blasphemy or to clutter up the last act with penitent hand-wringing about learning life lessons and answering prayers. Given ultimate power, the Man Who Could Work Miracles learns about the world; Bruce Nolan, as selfish in redemption as in sin, learns about himself. And director Tom Shadyac, still not free of the taint of Patch Adams, drops the gross-out, Jim Carrey-style comedy in favour of the sort of earnest special pleading that makes cynics yearn for his early, funny films even if they were Ace Ventura, Pet Detective and The Nutty Professor. Unlike the Farrelly Brothers, Shadyac (and the interchangeable Steve Oedekerk, who here has a hand in the script), has no real Rabelaisian commitment to body comedy: for every peeing dog or monkey-flying-out-of-a-thug's-butt joke, there's a homily about the power of sincere prayer or the worth of a God-given talent to amuse.

Jim Carrey remains potentially the greatest comic actor of his generation, but every time he tries to go beyond easy-answers clowning (The Cable Guy, Man in the Moon) his audience fails to show up. It's tempting to read the 'plight' of Bruce Nolan in similar terms, and Carrey's choice of this vehicle to claw back after the flop of the fairly stultifying The Majestic as a parallel with his character's ultimate realisation that he is fulfilling his duty as one of God's creations by doing wacky to-camera pieces about the 'biggest cookie baked in Buffalo' as opposed to reading copy off a teleprompter as anchor of the six o'clock news. Bruce Almighty keeps giving the star Jim Carrey things to do, and he does most of them tolerably well: pulling faces, bending his body into pretzel shapes, free-associating insult routines, undercutting all potential nastiness with a winning grin. It's a shame, however, that such an awesome premise should be handled with such timidity: when Bruce hauls the moon closer to make for a more romantic moment with Grace, we see news footage of a flood in Japan but not the cosmic catastrophe The Man Who Could Work Miracles delivers when Young makes the world stop turning.

God upbraids Bruce for using power only on magic tricks, like parting a bowl of tomato soup like the Red Sea, but it's not the character's fault that the film can't think of anything more significant its hero could use omnipotence for. Even for the purposes of moralism, it cops out since Bruce's capriciousness doesn't even result in much in the way of devastation - though he does cause the whole population of Buffalo to lose faith in the lottery and has the no-hope local team win a big championship. God is far less often represented directly on film than the Devil, and Morgan Freeman in a white suit is as acceptable casting as George Burns in the Oh God! films, if fairly unimaginative. Chuckling with benevolence and as all-forgiving as he is all-knowing, Freeman does better here than his recent showing as a mad colonel in Dreamcatcher, but there's a sense that this long-term asset to Hollywood has taken to accepting too many half-baked scripts in order to maintain his hard-working reputation and is in danger of becoming a fixture in feeble movies.

The saddest aspect of the film is that, uniquely for a Jim Carrey movie, the biggest laugh is (presumably) unintentional. Bruce pleads with his boss Jack Keller (the always-welcome Philip Baker Hall) for promotion to the spot the slimy Evan has his eyes on by declaring 'I can be an asshole'. Jack sincerely counters 'no, you can't'. Though the supposed punchline is Bruce's faked 'yes, I can' tantrum, the whole audience is likely to echo the old pantomime response and chant to Carrey 'oh, yes you can'.

First published In: Sight and Sound August 2003

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