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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 23, 2003

'Bruce' fails to rise to almighty occasion

By Marshall Fine
The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

BRUCE ALMIGHTY (Rated PG13) Two and one-half stars (fair-to-good).

Half of a funny movie, as a Buffalo TV reporter, unhappy with his career, suddenly finds himself imbued with God's powers. A great premise that collapses into feel-good stickiness, after an often-hilarious 45 minutes. Starring Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Aniston. Directed by Tom Shadyac. Universal Pictures. Rated PG-13 (profanity, violence, vulgar humor). 94 minutes.

The problem with "Bruce Almighty" is simple: It's not nearly mighty enough.

Certainly, the idea of casting Jim Carrey as your average schmo who suddenly inherits God's powers seems like a funny one. And it is, for the first 45 minutes (or the 30 seconds of the TV commercial, which spoils some of the film's best jokes).

But then the film's three writers run out of funny ideas. It's stunning to watch the comedy equivalent of a car having a blowout at 80 mph and spinning helplessly out of control.

Director Tom Shadyac is complicit in the breakdown, indulging the same Capra-esque impulse that coated his "Patch Adams" with a thick layer of goo. There is nothing wrong with the films of Frank Capra, but today's directors all seem to derive the wrong impulse from the memory of his movies.

By extension, Carrey has to shoulder some of the blame as well. At this point, he's a powerful enough star to shape the films he's in. He's not merely an obscenely well-paid bystander. It's probably not a coincidence that the last half of this film bears more than a little emotional resemblance to the finale of his last drippy outing, "The Majestic."

There are several laugh-out-loud sequences in the film's first half. It's just that given the rich premise of the film, writers Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe and Steve Oedekerk could have done so much more than turn it into a weak copy of "It's a Wonderful Life." They even include a scene from that classic to point up the similarities, but their work suffers by comparison.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan who, among other cosmic pranks that have been played on him, is a TV reporter in Buffalo, N.Y. But Bruce is unhappy in his work because, of course, he's in Buffalo. He also feels unfulfilled being the guy who does the wacky stories on the evening news.

What he wants is a chance to be taken seriously as anchor of the local news, a job that's about to come open because the longtime anchorman is retiring. But when he's outflanked by a colleague (a back-stabber who is given the job because he's a "serious" reporter), Bruce throws a hilarious fit on live TV and is fired.

Awash in a sea of self-pity, Bruce curses God, daring him to show his face to explain his indifference to Bruce's life. So God does, taking the form of a white-suited Morgan Freeman, whose calm self-assurance is perfect for this role.

God's message to Bruce: If you think this job is so easy, why don't you try handling it for a while? God gives Bruce his powers, announcing that he needs some time off. When Bruce protests that God can't take a vacation, he replies, "Ever hear of the Dark Ages?"

To Bruce, being all-powerful is mostly about performing magic tricks to amuse or satisfy himself. He parts traffic with a wave of his hand and teaches his dog to use the toilet. He also uses his powers to put himself at the scene of every major news story that suddenly breaks in Buffalo (because he created them), becoming the hottest reporter in town as a result.

And then — ka-splat! — the laughs suddenly stop. The film turns chaotic and maudlin, a strange combination that works to no one's advantage.

We're left with a movie that makes the least of its concept. Having raised issues about playing God and its consequences, the script decides to focus instead on Bruce's spiritual rebirth as someone more interested in the suffering of others than his own petty career grievances. There's little that's funny and plenty that's obvious in his about-face.

Most of this has to do with Bruce's relationship with his longtime girlfriend, a preschool teacher with the unfortunately portentous name of Grace (Jennifer Aniston). Supportive of Bruce's career neediness, she still gets treated as an afterthought (by the writers as much as by Bruce), even when his fortunes are reversed.

Carrey should take a lesson from Bruce, who learns to be satisfied with being able to entertain. As he shows in "Bruce Almighty," that's a gift that Carrey seems too willing to sacrifice in pursuit of the mantle of "serious actor."

Rated PG-13 for profanity, violence, vulgar humor.