By far the funniest moment in Evan Almighty occurs when God (Morgan Freeman, in full-on magical Negro mode) appears to the wife of Evan Baxter, a congressman turned reluctant ark builder. God tells Joan—yes, "Joan of Ark," get it?—that people "miss the point" of the Noah's ark story because they "think it's about God's anger … I think it's a love story about believing in each other." That's because, God continues, the animals show up in pairs, together, and Noah's family sails off in the boat, together.
Did anyone involved with Evan Almighty actually read the Noah story? You know, the part when God drowns the entire world, when "all in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life, all that was on dry land, died. All existence on earth was blotted out, man, cattle, creeping things, and birds of the sky; they were blotted from the earth." Now, I'm no great religious scholar, but it doesn't take Pope Benedict to see that the Noah story is not a charming little tale about familial love, but a terrifying lesson about our dependence on God: a warning that we are alonein the world and always at the mercy of a wrathful and demanding Lord.
Evan Almighty, a drab retelling of the Noah story as a comic ecofable,is Hollywood's latest and—with a $200 million budget—most expensive pander at the Christian market. Ever since the success of The Passion of the Christ in 2004, studios have been hurling money at Christian directors in hopes they can recapture that Jesus mojo. Evan director Tom Shadyac, a Catholic whose previous God film Bruce Almighty grossed $500 million, recently told Newsday, "There's no bigger Jesus freak in this room than me, 'cause when I was as young as I can remember, having cognition and thought, I was looking at this Jesus guy and going, 'Whoever this is, this is somebody that's blowing my mind.' "
Universal has hired a religious marketing firm to sell Evan Almighty to churches and religious leaders, hoping to capture the same hundreds of millions in Christ dollars raked in by The Passion, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Bruce Almighty. If they succeed, it will be tragic, not because Evan Almighty is unfunny (although it certainly is), but because it will validate Hollywood's embarrassingly stupid approach to religion and faith. If I were a believing man, movies like Evan would make me long for the days when Hollywood just ignored God.
Spoiler alert: If you don't want to know what happens in Evan Almighty, skip this paragraph. I won't rehash much of the plot here—check out Dana Stevens' review of Evan Almighty for a more detailed evaluation—but the gist is that God, angry about how we're despoiling his earth, picks empty-suit Evan (a surprisingly blah Steve Carell) to build an ark. Evan resists, but God's miracles finally beat him into submission. When Evan shaves, his beard immediately grows back; animals follow him—in pairs—everywhere; God materializes in the back seat of Evan's new Hummer. Evan builds the ark, saving all his neighbors when a dam built by a corrupt congressman breaks. The ark floats down to the Capitol building in a mighty flood, somehow not drowning anyone, or even requiring anyone to dog-paddle out of the way. Evan learns that his wife, his three sons, and trees matter more than his McMansion.
You might argue that making a comedy about Noah's ark—one of the Bible's grimmest stories—is a bit like making a sex farce about the Rwandan genocide. But the problem is not the comic aspiration. VeggieTales is proof that Bible comedy based on unpleasant stories is possible. No, what's disturbing about Evan Almighty is its flaccid approach to faith. All that is compelling, moving, and profound about the Noah story has been systematically excised. In the Bible, God chooses Noah to survive because Noah is a righteous man. But Evan is faithless and stupid, and comes to believe in God only because God hammers him over the head with about 137 miracles. Any moron will believe when an omnipotent divine being appears in the back seat of his car and starts sending him pairs of lions and giraffes. The lesson of the Bible is that faith is hard, and unrewarding, and painful. Faith is belief when there are no giraffes.
Shadyac told one early screening of religious leaders that he wants to use the film "to spread the idea of the good news." But Evan Almighty also strips away anything Christian (or Jewish) about the story and replaces it with a message of universal hokum. God's entire instruction to his flock? Practice "acts of random kindness." (Look at the initial letters of that phrase.) That's not religion or even morality. It's a coffee mug slogan. The proof of Evan's redemption is that he starts to like dogs.
I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but Evan Almighty makes me miss The Passion. It was a sadistic, horrifying movie, about a bloody and terrifying book. But Mel Gibson captured the sense of the story, the ideas of suffering and sacrifice that undergird Christianity. Evan Almighty is evidence that Hollywood wants the trappings of faith in movies, but without the substance.