MOVIESSteve Carell is lovable as God's unwilling disciple. But the comedy is less than divine.God may be in all things, but lately he seems especially at home in a certain kind of big-budget studio comedy aimed at a very particular market. That would be, apparently, the market that loves its zingy Bible puns and its adorable CGI versions of all God's creatures but doesn't want to be made to feel too bad about driving that SUV or heating 6,000 square feet in a just-sprouted development.
In Tom Shadyac's "Evan Almighty," as in its predecessor, "Bruce Almighty," the supreme being spends a lot of time adjusting the attitudes of middle-class everymen who have strayed from the path of righteousness. Not that they've strayed very far, mind you — the God of studio comedies is not really all that judgmental, preferring to overlook the lighter, middle-class sins so as not to alienate his core fan base.
Here, he's once again portrayed by Morgan Freeman as one part groovy yoga instructor, one part Vegas magician and one part high-end New Age life coach in Deepak Chopra pajamas. No part of him, however, suggests the Old Testament deity who, upon deciding that his creation is a big, fat disappointment, wipes it out and starts all over again. A God that vengeful and cranky may be OK for the Bible, but nobody expects him to carry a $175-million movie.
The eminently lovable Steve Carell, on the other hand, is just the man for that job, no matter how schmucky the character. Carell plays Evan, the preening, buffoonish Buffalo, N.Y., anchorman despised by Bruce in the first movie. He's just been elected to Congress on the "change the world" ticket, and the movie gets going as he piles his family — wife Joan ("Gilmore Girls' " Lauren Graham, minus her personality) and three standard-issue movie sons — into a shiny new Hummer. No sooner has he settled into his new northern Virginia home, a day-old McMansion (with kitchen counters lined with old-growth Brazilian cherrywood) in the brand-new development of Prestige Crest, than Evan starts receiving divine hints (a Bible verse on the clock radio, a crate of antediluvian tools on the doorstep and a pallet of lumber on the lawn). Then God shows up and orders a custom boat.
When Evan arrives on Capitol Hill for his first day on the job, having been inexplicably trailed by incontinent wildlife throughout the commute, Evan finds that Congressman Long (John Goodman) has installed him and his team — campaign manager Marty (John Michael Higgins), assistant Rita (Wanda Sykes) and intern Eugene (Jonah Hill) — in a suspiciously luxurious office and is angling for Evan's support on what is clearly a shady land-grab bill. Nobody suspects a thing.
What might follow, if the script didn't feel like it had been written over a weekend with a book of bad Bible puns in hand, would be some kind of ethical quandary: Should Evan advance his political career or do the right thing by opposing the bill? How will his beliefs be transformed?
Instead, Evan tries to go about his business as usual while God strong-arms him into a do-it-yourself project by turning him into Dr. Dolittle and afflicting him with a bad case of hyper-hirsutism. It's not so much a test of faith as a test of endurance. His hair and beard grow uncontrollably. Suits fly off him to be replaced by sackcloth robes. Lordy, how much bird poop can Evan withstand before caving?
It would help if we had any idea what Evan is supposed to be converting to. Will he renounce the suburban assault vehicle and the neo-Colonial ego monument, buy a Prius and settle into a more modest, say, 1,200 square feet of solar-paneled eco-living? Well, no. Will he sponsor bills to abolish the teaching of evolution in schools? Not that either.
He will, however, adopt a stray dog. And not just any dog. A dog that went potty on his lawn! This, God tells him, is what it's all about. Clearly, the God of "Evan Almighty" is a loving God, a forgiving God, a God who knows better than to discuss politics or religion at the box office, a God with unbelievably low expectations of humanity.
So what, then, is with the very impressive computer-generated wall of water that arrives as promised? That would be a public reprimand to the bad guy whose comeuppance is nigh. Though, given the limited scope of destruction, it's unclear why rhinos and elephants are called upon to board the ship. Then again, there's so much that doesn't make sense in "Evan Almighty" that the issue of wherefore the African fauna feels like a quibble. On the one hand, it's a thoroughly hedged pro-environment message. On the other, it's a Christian parable without an ethical center or moral lesson — it's zeitgeisty!
Nobody plays the humiliated, put-upon putz like Carell, however, so while it's disappointing to see him stuck in a soulless widget like this one, it's better than not seeing him at all. Sadder to see the brilliant Jon Stewart as himself, only not funny, making fake "Daily Show" jokes about the "New York Noah." It falls to Sykes, as ever, to be the designated zinger dispenser, while Graham is relegated to the blandest, most thankless of roles. (What is it with comedy writers and wives?)
Whatever its faults, "Bruce Almighty" sprung from a single, elegant premise that it followed through to the end: What if an average guy was given God-like powers? Jim Carrey played a local TV news correspondent whose frustration with God resulted in the Almighty teaching him a lesson similar to the one he imparted unto Spider-Man. Bruce was granted omnipotence (conveniently set to a Snap! track), and with it, intimate knowledge of what a pain noblesse oblige can be. Beyond a massive piece of Steve Carell business, however, "Evan Almighty" hasn't quite decided what it wants to be, and you get the feeling that if it weren't for another amazing arc — Carell's recent career trajectory — it wouldn't exist at all.
"Evan Almighty." MPAA rating: PG for mild rude humor and some peril. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In general release.
The comedian is lovable as God's unwilling disciple. But the comedy is less than divine.
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