Finally! A comedy for people who thought the spirituality and meditations on free will and cause and effect in Groundhog Day were just too darned complicated. Jim Carrey's return to frivolous humor in Bruce Almighty really should at least give a "Story By" credit to Groundhog scribe Danny Ruben, because Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe and Steve Oedekerk do some heavy cribbing here.
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In both films a blue-collar-city-based second tier television personality discovers a magical power that in many ways is a curse as well. In both film, the initial response is frat-boy highjinks, trying to get laid, lifting women's skirts, etc. This leads to failure and moral crisis, which leads to sachrine reconciliation with the sheer might of the powers. But that doesn't work either, leaving success possible only through a certain fundamental understanding of the choices that steer our life and the role of fate and self-determinism.
I assure you, that little deconstruction won't spoil anything about Bruce Almighty but if you've seen Bill Murray's opus, you'll be able to see every arc coming well in advance.
Of course, the material has been tempered to Carrey's personality (likely by Oedekerk , who wrote for the rubber-faced comic on In Living Color and Ace Ventura 2) and also to his current career arc. In fact, it would be generally impossible to actually examine Bruce Almighty without contextualizing it in the loop of Carrey's career.
Audiences like Jim Carrey, but only in certain modes and whenever he stretched outside of those modes, he has to apologize and do "stupid movie penance." After trying to stretch with Cable Guy, Carrey made it up to his loyal viewers with Liar, Liar (a genuinely funny comedy). After Man in the Moon, he tried to apologize with Me, Myself, and Irene, but even that proved a bit too dark. But frankly, it's tough to look at Bruce Almighty as anything other than an apology for Carrey's Oscar-bair fiasco The Majestic. This is just a comedian giving this core fans what they want and the early box office returns show it's working. Carrey's next film is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is based on a Charlie Kaufman script. So Jim, you may want to get the writers of this little effort working on a film where Bruce gets to become The Devil (it's a safe bet that the brainstorming has already begun), because some apologies may be in order.
That being said, Bruce Almighty has a nifty beginning. Carrey plays Bruce, a Buffalo newsman who mostly does silly comic human interest stories, but he yearns to do something more serious. He yearns to be an anchor. His hottie school teacher girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston) tries to assure Bruce that being funny serves its purpose and that maybe he isn't meant to be respected and serious.
[See how this might be more-than-a-little about Carrey-the-Actor as well as Bruce-the-Character?]
Bruce has lots of other things going wrong as well. He's self-absorbed and can't commit to Grace, his twerpy co-worker (played by Steve Carell) is always mocking him, plus he gets beaten up by the only minorities in the entire city of Buffalo (naturally gang members).
He's cursin' and spittin' and meltin' down and for reasons that are never justified by his character, he makes his personal failures into a personal vendetta with God. Without being quite literate enough to quote Lear and observe that as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they play us for their sport, he finally crosses the line with the divine force and soon he gets summoned to a downtown building, where God (Morgan Freeman, naturally) asks him to see if he can do better and endows him with all of his powers and promptly leaves on vacation.
Just as Bill Murray first used his repeated days for personal gain, Bruce has some career and social improvements to make, which causes him to let a bunch of other things slide. He spends the rest of the movie learning his lessons.
The problem is that while Groundhog Day is able to survive as Murray goes through a suicidal and lengthy self-help period (largely because its brilliant), Bruce Almighty just stops being funny around the half-way point. At first it goes from funny to genially amusing, but finally it becomes religiously muddled, morally flawed, and then, most fatally, boring and mawkish. I, in turn, sat in my seat and watched the film's star rating fall from 4 to 3 to 2.
Carrey is rarely, if ever, at fault. His attempts at more dramatic work have helped him modulate his performances so that his more dramatic moments feel slightly less like schtick than they used to. Slightly.
He's still most comfortable as a physical comedian and his gifts are well displayed here. He turns simple moments that may not have even included scripted jokes into gold. Take an early scene where he has to get up for work and he's in the middle of a bad dream. The minute of flopping, twitching and flailing he performs is satisfying in a way on Carrey could pull off. The notion that the power of God could give you a swelled head and a puffed out chest is embodied by the actor.
His face is a roadmap of his emotions and his particularly amazing in the early scenes where he expresses bafflement at his new powers. His initial reaction of fear is played identically to the way the actor handled being incapable of lying in Liar, Liar, but unlike that scenario, here, he can take pleasure in the situation. He realizes his gifts in a scene in a diner and his building joy is writ large across his face.
The problem with Carrey's performance comes in the second half, where the actor simply can't execute a believable transformation. I hate to keep returning to the superior film, but in Groundhog Day there are clear differences between where Murray's character begins the film and where he ends it. It's clear that at the beginning he isn't worth of being loved, but by the end of the film, his has actually learned something.
Carrey refuses to make his character hateful or obnoxious in the beginning. He starts off as Jim Carrey begging for our love. In the middle he's Jim Carrey begging for our laughter. And at the end, he's Jim Carrey confident he's received our love. But there's no process because his starting point isn't so bad, which is one of the unfortunate structural flaws of the script as well. It's built in that Carrey's life isn't so awful to begin with, so there's not really a meaningful personal journey he can take.
Meaningful? Personal journey? In a Jim Carrey movie? Dude, you might be saying by now, it's just a souffle of a summer comedy. It's supposed to be stupid. Why are you looking for meaning?
Simple answer: Because the laughter stopped. If they'd kept the laughter going, my quest for meaning would never have begun. Instead, though, there are lengthy scenes which are supposed to be meditations on free will (God's two rules for Bruce: He can't tell anybody and he can't tamper with free will) and the role that God plays in all of our lives (the infantily-named "Grace" is supposed to be very religious, not that it really related to her character beyond a superficial level).
The problem is, of course, the over-articulation of the God-theme. Sure, that's where the movie's humor comes from, but it also opens the film up to a theological reading where it simply falls flat. The all-important Groundhog Day is open to dozens of philosophical and theological readings, but it doesn't *require* them. Bill Murray being stuck in the same day can be attributed to anything you want to attribute it to, including God, a voodoo curse, or hallucinogenic mushrooms. With Bruce, it's all about God.
God, as depicted here isn't a vengeful God. He isn't a merciful God. He's mostly a pretty chill, laid-back, macro-managing God who would really prefer to handle the big stuff, while humans deal with the details. He's also pretty much totally located out of Buffalo. Bruce becomes God for several weeks, ignores the world, but only Buffalo seems to have minor problems. Either the world runs well with an absentee landlord, or else Morgan Freeman is only a Regional God, covering the Great Lakes region and Upstate New York.
Bruce Almighty only cares a bit about Buffalo as well. Residents of the city might not even recognize what cinematographer Dean Semler has done to the place and it's tough to tell how much of the movie was actually shot in Buffalo and how much could have been shot on a back lot. I'd guess most of it was in LA. It sure lacks any kind of genuine local color beyond the reference to Niagara Falls and the Buffalo Sabres (who go from always losing to winning the Stanley Cup in less than two weeks thanks to the miracles of the film's fuzzy definition of time).
The film's failure to find a proper tone or texure falls largely on the shoulders of director Tom Shadyac. After directing Ace Venture and Liar, Liar, Shadyac has made disastrous attempts to change things up with "dramas" like Patch Adams and Dragonfly. Those past two movies have given him a distorted sense of his place on the directing food chain. As a comedy helmer, he's just fine and he keeps the pace moving very well. He also understands how to somewhat contain Carrey. As a dramatic director, he's one of the worst currently working and the second half of this film contains entirely too much of those latter, flawed tendencies.
Beyond Carrey, the cast is fine, but generally wasted. Jim Carrey is, quite simply, an actor who rarely brings out the best in his fellow actors. The outtakes at the end of the film give a good indication of why that would be. Carrey knows that if he screws up or does an off-script ad-lib, he can nail it the next time. His co-stars, though, need to defer and so those around him always appear tentative.
Aniston, for example, has funny moments early on, but as the film moves on, he character becomes less and less consistent and her performance suffers. She has an awful emotional scene towards the end, which is as embarrassing as anything any of her Friends co-stars have done on the big screen, including playing baseball with a chimp and romancing David Arquette. It's not her fault, but there she is.
Freeman is mostly just there as well. He's a sight gag and little more, though heaven knows he has the screen presence necessary for the role.
Phillip Baker Hall and Nora Dunn are capable performers with nothing to do, though Steve Carell, expanding on his Daily Show faux-news persona, is quite funny.
The first half of Bruce Almighty is a comfortable return to form for Jim Carrey, but the second half suffers from attempting to be both too much and too little. I'm also not sure how I feel about the film's final message, which seems to suggest that Carrey would be better served making more movies like this and few ambitious attempts at dramatic greatness. That may be the case, but I'd hate to tell the guy to stop trying.
Anyway I'd happily recommend the first half here, but I was bored and annoyed in the second half, leaving me with a 2.5 rating and a failure to recommend. Others may (and will) be more generous.
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