- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

“Bruce Almighty” is a welcome and often engaging return to humorous form for Jim Carrey and director Tom Shadyac, happily associated on “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” in 1994 and “Liar Liar” in 1997. Both had seemed a bit lost in the wilderness as the old century ended and a new one commenced.

Mr. Carrey wasn’t quite himself while impersonating Andy Kaufman and the Grinch or suffering amnesia in “The Majestic.” Mr. Shadyac also was busy barking up wrong trees. Failing to make a semicomical case for tear-jerking affirmation in “Patch Adams,” he failed from a completely downhearted perspective in “Dragonfly.” These misadventures may account for the fact that “Bruce Almighty” is an inspirational farce about a guy who needs divine intervention to salvage his career and personal life.

Upon reflection, Mr. Carrey’s Bruce Nolan, a Buffalo, N.Y., television personality who feels underemployed and unappreciated as the human-interest reporter on an “Eyewitness News” team, may seem a curiously trifling object of almighty solicitude. Nevertheless, he’s the squeaky wheel that God, personified by Morgan Freeman, obviously the most flattering choice at Hollywood’s disposal, singles out for ultimately humbling and stabilizing attention.

In the immediate aftermath of a miserable day of setbacks, Bruce is lured into a private audience with God, who seems to enjoy posing as a janitor and mopping floors in spacious empty buildings. God easily reads Bruce’s self-pitying, overmatched mind and leaves this apprentice with temporary loaner powers, whose unintended consequences may not reach far beyond the Buffalo area.

The screenwriters seem a little confused and contradictory about the ground rules, but one is willing to make allowances while the brainstorms remain amusing and allow the star to act harmlessly playful or fiendish. They suffice while Bruce indulges random whims. The most elaborate and pictorially satisfying is an evening of elevated eroticism with long-suffering girlfriend Grace, played by Jennifer Aniston, who works at a day care center and seems to be infinitely patient. It’s quite possible that a higher opinion of “Bruce Almighty” can be negotiated if you conclude that the whole scenario is God’s way of answering Grace’s recurrent prayers.

The plot shows signs of capsizing when Bruce starts taking satanic liberties back at the TV station and when he tries to finesse the volume of prayers that clamor for divine recognition of some kind. Bruce more or less flunks the probation period by setting up an automatic mechanism that grants every request, including the strictly avaricious ones.

The pretext gets strained to a fault when the hero learns, belatedly, that dear Grace trusts in prayer. Well, perhaps Bruce has been too self-centered to discern this faith-based aspect of her character, but wouldn’t all her prayers be granted, too, as part of his timesaving blanket approval? And isn’t that a comic twist that might save us from expedient estrangements and blubbery reconciliations? The logic of entrusting supernatural power of any kind to knuckleheaded Bruce begins to crumble. The filmmakers need Morgan Freeman’s interventions quicker than they can insert them.

“Liar Liar” was a more incisive and plausible sort of fantasy. It limited the liability of Mr. Carrey’s character, an unscrupulous lawyer named Fletcher Reede, to 24 hours: Enchanted by the birthday wish of his neglected little boy, Fletcher could speak only the truth. Being a reluctant prisoner of truth twisted him into Jekyll-and-Hyde knots. It might have been helpful if God had imposed a 24-hour time limit on Bruce, whose dispensation starts to look foolishly open-ended.

Even the domestic baggage in the earlier film was more effective. Fletcher’s selfishness had cost him a marriage and threatened his prerogatives as a divorced father. At one point, Bruce Nolan complains, “I’m pushing 40,” an amazing admission from an actor who actually was 40 while speaking that line. Nevertheless, this older incarnation of Jim Carrey hasn’t married and remains childless. On two occasions, the filmmakers recall James Stewart’s famous character George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but this homage tends to remind you that Bailey had credentials as a frustrated family man and small-town benefactor that Nolan lacks. The disparity tends to discredit Nolan, even in a farcical context.

In short, it’s best not to brood about the ways in which “Bruce Almighty” gets muddled, especially in the last reel. Maybe those post-“Liar Liar” projects have weakened powers of judgment in both Mr. Carrey and Mr. Shadyac. On the other hand, the best comic sequences in their reunion film suggest that there’s still plenty of enjoyment to be gained from this partnership. It may get a little more difficult to sustain hilarity in their 40s, but the effort is clearly worth making: “Bruce Almighty” qualifies as a heavenly improvement after “The Majestic” and “Dragonfly.”

** 1/2

TITLE: “Bruce Almighty”

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity; occasional comic vulgarity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Tom Shadyac. Screenplay by Steve Koren, Mark O’Keefe and Steve Oedekerk. Cinematography by Dean Semler.

RUNNING TIME: About 110 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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