Jim Carrey may have it all -- formidable comic gifts, physical grace, good looks and charm -- but "Bruce Almighty," his latest collaboration with director Tom Shadyac, is not so mighty. As a showcase for Carrey it's sufficiently surefire that it will satisfy his loyal fans, who will doubtless be thrilled to see him doing all-out physical humor again. Yet "Bruce Almighty" remains an instance of what might have been.
The problem is not so much the basic premise of Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe and Steve Odekerk's screenplay, which has Carrey playing a frustrated Buffalo, N.Y., newscaster given godly powers, but rather one of tone and scale. A glimpse of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" on a TV set connects it thematically with "Bruce Almighty" in that Carrey, like Jimmy Stewart, is a man in need of discovering his true worth. But unlike "Wonderful Life," "Bruce Almighty" is a fable overwhelmed by special effects and outsized spectacle.
The film is stubbornly synthetic and mechanical. The combination of standard establishing shots of Buffalo (in reality a highly atmospheric city with splendid architecture), overly familiar movie sets and scenes shot in Los Angeles and San Diego makes for a jumbled, jarring and overall highly artificial production design. "Bruce Almighty" often does not seem to be taking place in the real world, and that's a serious drawback if you're trying to create an elaborate fantasy.
Carrey's Bruce Nolan has a lot going for him: a locally high-profile job; a devoted, gorgeous live-in lover, Grace ("Friends' " Jennifer Aniston), who runs a day-care center; and a tasteful apartment in an old brownstone. But just as he considers his residence "mediocre," he has come to resent his work and craves a job as a news anchor. When he's denied his chance, losing out to a smarmy rival (Steven Carell), he goes berserk on the air, with more disasters to follow.
Cursing God for his rotten luck, he is suddenly confronted by Morgan Freeman, who convinces him that he is in fact God and will transfer his almighty powers to Bruce while he takes a much-needed vacation. A caveat: It's a Presbyterian universe out there, and the one thing Bruce can't alter is free will.
It's only natural that Bruce would want to exact revenge and have fun with the divine powers at his disposal. Shadyac and Carrey (who teamed on "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "Liar, Liar") amusingly convey the delicious thrill at evening scores and discovering his seemingly limitless magical gifts. But Bruce, who's only human after all, gets carried away and acts selfishly, single-mindedly determined to make good on his dream of becoming the next Walter Cronkite, remaining oblivious to the value of his gift for making people laugh.
The writers come up with some inspired touches. Bruce wills the moon to come closer in order to create a more romantic atmosphere with Grace, not realizing that this will cause a tsunami in Japan; nor is he aware that answering everyone's prayers with a 'yes' (via e-mail), creating 400,000 lottery winners in the Buffalo area alone, could end up causing a riot.
Along with a droll Freeman and a lovely, down-to-earth Aniston, there is stalwart Philip Baker Hall as Bruce's kindly boss to head the supporting cast. Tony Bennett turns up as himself, singing "If I Ruled the World" at a posh supper club, and Sally Kirkland is a friendly diner waitress who serves Bruce a bowl of tomato soup, which he finds he can part like the Red Sea in a first test of his new powers. But this is, first to last, Carrey's show, and he makes the most of it in some classic comic set pieces -- in particular one where he turns the news anchor into a blubbering fool.
Movies in which the hero's angst is actually responded to by God are always a tricky business. Audiences are tempted to ask why this particular person should grab God's attention and be granted some special wish or gift. In regard to "Bruce Almighty," the gimmick works better when Carrey's comic gifts are on full display, neither competing with razzle-dazzle special effects nor being ensnared by the film's more sentimental homilies about miracles residing within the individual.
As a result, an unevenness of tone, which becomes manipulative in effect, echoes and compounds the unconvincing look and feel of the entire film. While "Bruce Almighty" does end on a modest "Candide"-like note, the getting there is too strained to be much of a pleasure.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for language, sexual content and some crude humor
Times guidelines: When it's crude, it's quite crude, with lots of toilet jokes; some material may be inappropriate for young viewers.
Jim Carrey ... Bruce Nolan
Morgan Freeman ... God
Jennifer Aniston ... Grace Connelly
Philip Baker Hall ... Jack Keller
Sally Kirkland ... Anita
A Universal Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment presentation of a Shady Acres/Pit Bull production. Director Tom Shadyac. Producers Tom Shadyac, Jim Carrey, James D. Brubaker, Michael Bostick, Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe. Executive producers Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Steve Odekerk. Screenplay Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe and Steve Odekerk. Cinematographer Dean Semler. Editor Scott Hill. Music John Debney. Costumes Judy Ruskin Howell. Visual effects supervisor Bill Taylor. Production designer Linda DeScenna. Art director Jim Nedza. Set decorator Ric McElvin. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In general release.