WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: Buffalo News reporter Bruce Nolan is tired of constantly being sent out to cover ‘wacky’ stories, and when he is passed over for an anchor spot he takes his anger out on God. Unusually, God decides to teach Bruce a lesson by endowing His powers on him, and suddenly Bruce is unstoppable – except where his neglected girlfriend Grace is concerned.
Having sent Jim Carrey’s lying lawyer into contortions by making him tell the whole truth for a whole day in Liar, Liar, director Tom Shadyac again teams up with the rubber-faced one to bring us Bruce Almighty. Carrey is the titular Bruce, an ambitious reporter in Buffalo frustrated by the ‘lighter side’ assignments he’s sent on; and even when he gets the chance to report live from the Niagara Falls, the mission is mostly a ruse to remove him from the scene whilst his smarmy colleague Evan (Steve Carell), who steals Bruce’s material, is given the newly-free seat alongside attractive co-anchor Susan (Catherine Bell).
Hearing of the appointment, Bruce goes nuts on live TV and is promptly sacked, causing him to rant at God, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston), a teacher who believes in the power of prayer and is unsurprisingly upset at being included in Bruce’s ‘mediocre life’. As Bruce’s life goes from mediocre to bad to worse, he is pestered to call a pager number which leads him to a meeting with jovial janitor Morgan Freeman, aka God. God fancies a holiday so imbues a disbelieving Bruce with all his powers, the only rules being that Bruce cannot reveal his omnipotence to anyone nor mess with their free will.
He instantly sets about abusing his power to not only get his job back at the station by reporting on incredible events as they happen (he finds Jimmy Hoffa’s body and films a meteor strike), but to become anchor by sabotaging Evan’s broadcasts. He’s successful but discovers that there are side effects to being God: he keeps hearing people’s prayers and even granting them all doesn’t secure happiness, as there’s no benefit in millions of people winning the lottery; besides, meteors and pulling the moon out of orbit are fine for Bruce but have negative effects elsewhere.
Worst of all, Bruce’s selfishness doesn’t do anything to win over Grace, who is devastated when a posh evening out results not in a proposal but in Bruce gloating about his success. She leaves and Bruce finds that it’s not at all easy being God.
Bruce Almighty’s immediate problem is that it takes an age to set up, since God doesn’t put in an appearance (as Freeman, anyway) until the half-hour mark. Once it gets going, the segment where Bruce abuses his powers for personal profit and pleasure is quite good fun, but even here there are indications that the writing is neither as sharp nor as creative as it might be: most of Carrey’s less-than-divine interventions are silly jokes (regurgitating spoons, parting the red soup (geddit?), and even the highlight of the entire film – Carell’s involuntary antics as he attempts to anchor the news – outstays its welcome. Elsewhere, the jokes are weak, such as the ‘Yahweh’ website that coordinates prayers, or the film’s big running joke about Bruce and Grace’s freely-urinating dog; funny to six-year olds, no doubt, but the rest of the material is pitched way above their heads.
As the film tries to wrap up it becomes increasingly convoluted, with Bruce being kissed by Susan at a party but making Grace do most of the work to mend fences, then when Bruce gets his anchor spot a series of power cuts caused by rioters (unhappy about the lottery) somehow bring him to his senses, only for him to be killed by a lorry and brought back to life with the help of Grace’s blood.
This, incidentally, is the only theologically interesting idea in a film which doesn’t really have anything controversial to say about God, though it does get its knickers slightly in a twist about how much people should exercise Free Will and how much they should surrender to God’s. And (of course) the conclusion is cloyingly syrupy, even if the dog is no substitute for Liar, Liar’s kiddie; Shadyac again tries to have his comedy sliced both edgy and cute, but his film actually comes across as both insincere and blunt.
Devoid of strong material, Carrey has to gurn ever harder to earn his laughs, and while that worked fine on The Mask it’s a bit depressing – having seen the subtlety of his performance in (the admittedly later) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – to see him at it here. Aniston, meanwhile, seems destined to have three kinds of film performances: Rachel, miscast, and generic. Her Grace is firmly of the last kind; she is perfectly fine, but the teed-off girlfriend (unoriginally a nursery teacher with a married and child-bearing nag for a sister) has very few jokes of her own and the part could have been played by any actress of a similar age. Freeman is fine but barely gets out of first gear, and though it’s not Freeman’s fault I found the symbolic presence of a tramp throughout the film (who could He be?) more annoying than intriguing.
Bruce Almighty is okay, in that it raises the odd chuckle and isn’t horribly misjudged or horribly offensive (though you may feel there are many more people deserving of God’s help than Bruce); but it suffers from being incredibly familiar and predictable, not only in Carrey’s performance but in most of what happens to him (getting caught with another woman, undergoing a sudden and complete personality transformation in the last ten minutes). It can’t help but invite comparisons to much better fantasy-driven movies such as Groundhog Day or the daddy of them all, It’s a Wonderful Life; in that company, Bruce is a whiny, spoilt brat and not remotely mighty.