Playing God


A lot of moviegoers see hyperactive Jim Carrey as the second coming of Jerry Lewis, but no one’s ever mistaken him for God. Clearly, he’d like to change that — at least at the box office. Hey, you’d feel the same way if your last movie was The Majestic.

In Bruce Almighty, Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a self-absorbed TV reporter in Buffalo, New York, who gets a shot at playing the Supreme Being. Because this is not the kind of opportunity that comes around every day — for movie comedians or TV reporters — Carrey tries to get everything he can out of it, unleashing his whole familiar repertoire of Silly Putty contortions and extravagant hamming in the service of a mostly slapstick comedy that means to teach us about the wise use of power. By the end, Bruce lays on the whole enlightenment thing pretty thick.

Bruce Nolan is one deeply disgruntled barrel of laughs — the emotional kin of Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman in Groundhog Day. Our hero covers cutesy stuff — a giant-cookie story, an anniversary heartwarmer — with a certain style, but he covets the station’s soon-to-be-vacant anchor slot. Already stewing in envy, Bruce goes ballistic (does Carrey know any other way?) when a supercilious rival (Steven Carell) gets the job. At the end of a nightmarish day — fired at work, beaten by thugs, car smashed into a light pole — he curses God for his bad luck.

It’s not Charlton Heston who responds, or even Donald Rumsfeld. He is dignified, loose-limbed Morgan Freeman, incarnated as a hip, silver-haired janitor. His divine proposal? Unhappy Bruce can now have the job — God’s job. Just two rules: He can’t tell anyone, and he can’t mess with free will.

If this concept isn’t sheer heaven for Jim Carrey, what could be? Before we can say Jehovah, egotistical Bruce is bringing his newfound omnipotence to bear. He smites his old enemy at the TV station by reducing him to a fit of on-air gibberish and, just for grins, gives his bewildered live-in girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) an instant breast augmentation. “Imagine the Creator as a low comedian,” H.L. Mencken once suggested, “and at once the world becomes explicable.” For an hour or so, Carrey and the writers take their inspiration from the sour old bard of Baltimore.

It wouldn’t do, though — at least not in Hollywood — to let Bruce’s unbridled id run amok without consequence or to close the proceedings without a surge of spiritual uplift. The power-mad Bruce who delights in parting his tomato soup like the Red Sea may be the secret God of our collective fantasies. But by the time this comedy hits the top of its arc, Bruce has to pay the piper. For one thing, his head and his computer both get bombarded with unanswered prayers, and if the misanthrope doesn’t begin to understand something about mastery, Buffalo could suddenly face apocalypse. As epiphanies go, Bruce’s may be a little grandiose — he literally sees the light — but the witty and playful Morgan Freeman hasn’t been this endearing since Driving Miss Daisy. As the cool, all-knowing foil to Carrey’s scenery-chomping frenzies, Freeman nearly grabs the movie right out of the comedian’s eager hands. The two pull off a neat little comic duet.

There’s no point in trying to sort out the theology of Bruce Almighty. Some believers objected to the low-rent miracles George Burns performed in Oh, God!, and others still haven’t forgiven Monty Python’s nearly constant assault on Christian piety — and that’s probably as it should be. The real wonder here (aside from the possibility that Carrey will rebound by transforming physical comedy into metaphysical comedy) is that God has chosen to visit Buffalo at all. If you’ve ever spent three days there in February, you know the place can test even infinite patience.

Categories: Movies