Reviewed by Kim Newman
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
Buffalo, New York, the present. Television-news reporter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) feels marginalised and wants an anchorman spot. Having learned that a smarmy rival, Evan Baxter (Steven Carell), has won the promotion, he vents his wrath on a live broadcast using profane language that gets him fired. Leaving the station, he tells off a gang of roughs, is beaten up and has his car vandalised. Later, he upsets his devoted girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston) by dismissing their life as mediocre and runs out into the night, railing against God.
Beeper messages lead Bruce to an empty office building where he meets a janitor (Morgan Freeman) who turns out to be God and bestows on him all His powers while He takes a holiday. At first disbelieving, Bruce discovers he is omnipotent and sets about improving his daily life, making his incontinent dog use the toilet, enlarging Grace's breasts and taking revenge on the gang. Using his powers to create news stories, he wins back his job and is given the anchorman spot.
However, he uses his powers only for selfish ends and, barred from interfering with free will, cannot stop Grace from becoming disaffected and leaving him. Rebuked by God for not doing the job, Bruce starts paying attention to people's prayers, though his blanket answering of wishes leads to disaster as multiple lottery winners receive only tiny sums. Eventually Bruce learns that he has to improve his life the hard way, by patiently training the dog, accepting he was better suited to his original job and trying to win Grace back. Struck by a truck while praying, he wakes up in hospital and is reunited with Grace. God takes back His powers.
In 1937 H.G. Wells elaborated on his story The Man Who Could Work Miracles in a screenplay for Alexander Korda, with Roland Young as a little man gifted with omnipotence by capricious gods (note the plural). Though Wells is rarely considered an especially humorous writer, his take on the premise is not only better thought through than Bruce Almighty but also funnier. A staunch atheist, Wells felt no need to cover himself against charges of blasphemy or to clutter up the last act with penitent hand-wringing about learning life's lessons and answering prayers. Given ultimate power, the man who could work miracles learns about the world; this film's protagonist Bruce Nolan, as selfish in redemption as in sin, learns about himself. And director Tom Shadyac still not free of the taint of Patch Adams drops the gross-out, Carrey-style comedy in favour of the sort of earnest special pleading that makes cynics yearn for his early, funny films, even if they were Ace Ventura Pet Detective and The Nutty Professor. Unlike the Farrelly brothers, Shadyac (along with his regular collaborator Steve Oedekerk) has no Rabelaisian commitment to body comedy: for every peeing dog or monkey-flying-out-of-a-butt joke there's a homily here about the power of sincere prayer or the worth of a God-given talent to amuse.
Jim Carrey remains potentially the greatest comic actor of his generation, but every time he tries to go beyond easy-answers clowning (The Cable Guy, Man in the Moon) his audience fails to show up. It's tempting to read the 'plight' of Bruce Nolan in similar terms: Carrey's choice of this vehicle after the flop of the fairly stultifying The Majestic mirrors Nolan's ultimate realisation that his duty as God's creation is fulfilled by doing wacky to-camera pieces about the "biggest cookie baked in Buffalo". Bruce Almighty keeps giving Carrey things to do, and he does most of them tolerably well: pulling faces, bending his body into pretzel shapes, free-associating insult routines and undercutting any potential nastiness with a winning grin. It's a shame, however, that such an awesome premise should be handled with such timidity: God upbraids Bruce for using the powers He's temporarily granted him only on magic tricks parting a bowl of tomato soup like the Red Sea but it's hardly the character's fault that the film can't think of any more significant uses for its hero's omnipotence. Even for the purposes of moralism it cops out, since Bruce's capriciousness doesn't result in much devastation: when he hauls the moon closer to make for a more romantic moment with his girlfriend Grace, we see news footage of a flood in Japan but not the cosmic catastrophe The Man Who Could Work Miracles delivers when Young makes the world stop turning.
God is far less often represented directly on film than the Devil, and Morgan Freeman in a white suit makes for acceptable if unimaginative casting, holding up against George Burns in the Oh, God! films. Chuckling with benevolence and as all-forgiving as he is all-knowing, Freeman does better here than in his recent showing as a mad colonel in Dreamcatcher, but there's a sense that this long-term asset to Hollywood has taken to accepting too many half-baked scripts in order to maintain his reputation for hard work.
The saddest aspect of Bruce Almighty is that, uniquely for a Jim Carrey movie, the biggest laugh is unintentional. Bruce pleads with his boss Jack Keller for promotion to the anchorman spot a slimy rival has his eye on by declaring, "I can be an asshole." Jack sincerely counters, "No, you can't." Though the supposed punchline is Bruce's faked "Yes, I can" tantrum, the audience is likely to echo the old pantomime response and chant, "Oh, yes you can."
- Tom Shadyac
- Tom Shadyac Jim Carrey James D. Brubaker Michael Bostick Steve Koren Mark O'Keefe
- Steve Koren Mark O'Keefe Steve Oedekerk
- Steve Koren Mark O'Keefe
- Director of Photography
- Dean Semler
- Scott Hill
- Production Designer
- Linda DeScenna
- John Debney