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September 19, 2014

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Bruce Almighty
(Reviewed May 27, 2003)
Rating: Not worthy of a star
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There are some good jokes in Bruce Almighty, the latest collaboration between Jim Carrey and Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura, Pet Detective; Liar! Liar!), but the film’s most striking feature is its poverty of imagination. To get an idea of it, think if you will for a moment about the idea of the Lord God of Hosts of the Bible, Creator of the Universe — whether you believe in Him or not — or that of the proprietor of the primum mobile in the Aristotelian cosmos, and then think what most of us mean when we say that we’ve had a bad day, and the nature of the complaints we are likely to make to the deity thereon.

To suppose, as this film does, that God takes such complaints seriously is tantamount to being unable to imagine what God is. It is after such a day that Bruce Nolan (Mr Carrey), a local TV news "personality" in Buffalo, cries out, "God, why do you hate me?" and other provoking things meant to suggest a view of the Almighty not unlike that of the English poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy — "God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I'm the ant," says Bruce to his long-suffering live-in girlfriend, the amusingly-named Grace (Jennifer Anniston) — though Hardy might not have put it quite like that.

Not that Bruce even comes close to going up in flames. He merely fails to get a hoped-for promotion at the office and then flips out on the air and gets himself fired in a less-apocalyptic though still-painful fashion. This leads to a histrionic fit in which he cries: "Smite me, oh mighty smiter!" But God has long since got out of the smiting business (in case you haven’t heard) and decided instead to emulate Santa Claus — going for popularity rather than fear, I guess. Accordingly, as a kindly old black gentleman played by Morgan Freeman, the former Lord of Sabaoth arranges for Bruce to have a personal interview with himself and then to take over his job while he goes, uh, on vacation.

The disarming thing about the movie’s premiss is that its imaginative weakness, its lack of any just perspective on God, is also — let’s face it — our own. God is to Bruce what he is to so many of us dreamers of the American dream: the cosmic bellhop whom we expect to bring us what we ask for just because it is in his job description. And Bruce takes advantage of his super powers to do more or less what most of us would do: that is, to get himself a better job, a better car, better sex and petty revenge against those who have wronged him. Oh, and to housebreak the dog and part a bowl of tomato soup like the Red Sea.

Thus this movie doesn’t come out of the old-fashioned Hollywood metaphysicals such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait or A Matter of Life and Death but out of our own cartoon world of superheroes and the twitching nose of Samantha Stevens on "Bewitched." True, Bruce must learn to be less selfish, and nicer to poor Grace, but it is not clear why these advances in thoughtfulness and maturity require a direct intervention by the Ancient of Days. "Not as easy as it looks is it, son — this God business," saith the Lord to Bruce. If this is the one who has gone astray, the other ninety and nine must be very well-conducted little sheep indeed.

But what more can be expected from the story of a man for whom omnipotence is just a means to the end of becoming local TV anchor-man in Buffalo? You wonder for a moment if the absurdity is intentional. Perhaps it is meant to be seen as a sort of insane extension of the consumerist ethos, like telephoning the president of Daimler-Chrysler when there’s a tail-light out on your Mercedes. But you can’t really read it this way in the end. Jim Carrey, though Canadian, is too much the American Everyman. More likely, some studio boss just thought it sounded a funny idea to let him take a spin behind the wheel of the universe. Well, it sort of is.




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