In any other movie, dialogue like “There’s nothing wrong with making people laugh” would seem innocuous. In Bruce Almighty, it’s like Stuart Smalley’s daily affirmation for star Jim Carrey.
Railed after the earnestly dramatic The Majestic, Carrey has retreated to the safe haven of facial contortions and body bends that made him a $20-million man.
Where The Majestic was an aggressive puppy licking your face, Bruce Almighty is the same dog urinating on your leg. It’s an appropriate analogy for a movie that trots out a rampantly whizzing dog gag three times in the first 20 minutes and countless times afterward.
Bruce Almighty is wretched, a comedic train wreck with a total of four funny jokes, the greatest of which doesn’t even come from its star. That the best physical comedy in a Jim Carrey film comes from The Daily Show’s Steven Carell says plenty.
Carrey plays Bruce, a TV newsman in Buffalo, N.Y., who’s stuck reporting about fluff stories like the city’s biggest chocolate chip cookie. When passed over for a posh anchorman position, he flips out during a live feed (one of the film’s few inspired scenes) and is fired from his job.
He then admonishes God, suggesting he’s been made a personal target for all life’s woes. Sooner than you can say “high concept,” Bruce is summoned to an abandoned building where he meets the Almighty (Morgan Freeman, slumming but tolerable). With such specific scorn directed at him, God grants Bruce his powers and challenges him to do a better job.
Bruce Almighty has a killer premise, but the three credited screenwriters (including Carrey’s muse, Steve Oedekerk) do nothing with it. Groundhog Day, a similar high-concept comedy about a bitter TV newsman, took its time-loop conceit to some interesting black-comedy riffs about death.
Here, Bruce uses God’s powers to teach his dog to use the toilet, makes everyone a lottery winner and gives his girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston, wasted) an orgasm from the other room. How knee-slapping. Obviously, he’s supposed to use his powers foolishly before the treacly turnabout to doing good deeds. But none of the shenanigans, complete with cheap-looking special effects, are funny.
Even the natural special effect, Carrey’s typically boyish face, doesn’t work. He looks older than dirt, as though the rubber in his cheeks is starting to harden. Perhaps it’s the stress of shouldering the weak comedic material, which include Chariots of Fire gags, Walter Cronkite impersonations and a monkey literally flying out of someone’s butt. The idea was funny as an abstract in Wayne’s World, but is astonishingly bad as a specific.
And the script must have contained specific insertion instructions for Carrey to add six syllables to a two-syllable word or take a stupid voice. Somehow, he typically can make his mugging seem natural. Here, its over-calculation makes it feel like a cheese grater to the brain.
It’s not as ridiculous, though, as when hack director Tom Shadyac serves up spirituality as a side dish to the orgasm and pee jokes. Feel-good elements rarely come as phony, trite or embarrassing for all involved, as when Carrey, soaked in a downpour, cries out to God, “I surrender to your will!”
While talking about the film in People, Jim Carrey said given God’s powers, he would send all the critics who hated The Majestic to hell. Maybe he should put them to a wiser use, like trying to keep from becoming the next Eddie Murphy.