Bruce Almighty: more heartwarming mush from Jim Carrey.

Reviews of the latest films.
May 23 2003 12:13 PM

Oh, God!

More heartwarming mush from Jim Carrey.

He's God with a dancer's aplomb
He's God with a dancer's aplomb

The prospect of Jim Carrey playing God (or, more precisely, God for a Week) in Bruce Almighty (Universal) is tantalizing—the smartest high concept for a comedy I've heard all year. When great manic comedians like Carrey are in the groove, they have a godlike aura: They can pull conceits out of the air, physicalize them, twist them inside out, then nonchalantly bat them away; they can use mockery to affirm—or explode—the interconnectedness of all things. Think of the ecstatic confidence of Richard Pryor in the '70s, Robin Williams in the '80s, and Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice (1988): They raged, they purged—they mixed vaudeville and rock 'n' roll in equal proportions. (Yes, cocaine often gave them gas, but it didn't give them genius.) Carrey has been close to that sensational. His mugging can be oppressive, but at his best (in, say, The Mask [1994]) he has a whirligig bravura and a dancer's aplomb: He's truly the master of his realm.

That Carrey shows up in Bruce Almighty. If you've seen the coming attraction, you'll remember the shot where, in anticipation of wild sex with his girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston), he arches his back like Esther Williams and his clothes fly off: genius. You'll also remember him bopping along the street to the strains of "I've got the power," then pivoting and zapping a fire hydrant, from which issues three mighty streams. As Bruce Nolan, an unhappy, unsuccessful Buffalo, N.Y., TV reporter who is suddenly given the power to rule the world, Carrey rules the screen with a demonic glint. But oh, so briefly.

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There's a very funny half-hour of Bruce Almighty—after he gets the power but before he learns the lesson that with power comes responsibility, etc. See him part the waters in a bowl of soup! See him toilet-train his dog! See him contrive to be on the scene for sundry miraculous happenings, earning the nickname "Mr. Exclusive"! See him sabotage the conceited sap (Steven Carell) who got the anchor job instead of him! See what happens when a thug says he'll only apologize for beating Bruce up the day a monkey comes out of his butt!

It's obvious stuff, but it plays right to the nasty revenge fantasies of the average impotent moviegoer. The other hour, though, is a bland family film—a Carrey picture for people who prefer their Carrey cut with Sweet'N Low. It's not that he's low-key: He still feels compelled to cram shtick into every margin. It's that he's harried in a bland, sitcom way, like Darrin on Bewitched or Dean Jones in innumerable Disney comedies opposite ghosts and big dogs and sentient Volkswagens. Bruce Almighty turns into a slapstick Touched by an Angel: It even ends with a pitch for giving blood.

The director, Tom Shadyac, directed Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), but has since segued into sickly mystical uplift. He was the man behind the gruesome Patch Adams (1998), in which Robin Williams brought inspirational zaniness into the lives of terminally ill kids, and last year's Dragonfly, in which Kevin Costner was haunted by a ghost with a loving agenda. The much-maligned Farrellys (whose work I adore) have a sentimental streak, too, but it's organic: Comic spazzes and the genuinely disabled are on the same continuum, laboring to make do with what a jokester God has given them. For Shadyac, there's a comic realm (the gags are an elbow to the ribs) and a "sincere" realm. The God of Bruce Almighty is ultimately a Sunday school principal who doesn't mind putting the world in the hands of a narcissistic idiot if it teaches him a thing or two about the miracle of love. He's a primetime, family-hour God.

It's a blessing—for real—that the Almighty is Morgan Freeman, who does parts like this in an easy, soft-shoe style. In a radiant white suit, Freeman drops into the movie on occasion to deliver a zinger or a homily and then gets out. He's wonderful—that is, he's wonderful if you don't mind seeing God (and a god among actors) limited to wagging his head with folksy sagacity. I like my God, though, like I like my comedies: ruder, cruder, and able to show me things I haven't seen before. Bruce Almighty is sadly miracle-free.

It is, however, highly watchable, which is more than can be said for Andrew Fleming's coarse and chaotic remake of The In-Laws (Warner Bros.). The 1979 original is a classic crazy comedy and something of a fluke: The tight screenplay (by Andrew Bergman) is unexpectedly enhanced by the sloppy, uninsistent direction (by Arthur Hiller); and the two leads, Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, manage to play comic opposites (a secret agent and a fubsy doctor respectively) yet remain gloriously in synch. The movie has a long half-life: Yell "Serpentine!" to anyone who has seen it and you're sure to double them over.

There was no reason on earth to remake The In-Laws, but Fleming—who made the loose and convivial Watergate sendup Dick (1999)—seemed a good choice for the unenviable job, and I laughed when I heard the casting. Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks are opposites for real: the former a smooth, confident deal maker—the actor as businessman; the latter a brilliant, often paralytic depressive. As the perpetually frowning straight man, Brooks has better timing than in his last two self-made movies, but his lines are cringe-worthy. And he has little in the way of a partner. Douglas—whose role requires a manic intensity—plays every scene distractedly. You can picture his many assistants just off-camera holding up cell phones and mouthing, "It's your lawyer," "It's your accountant," and "Catherine wants to know what time Consuela should have dinner ready."

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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