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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2003

Give us this day our daily dreck

Bruce Almighty

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Tom Shadyac
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 20
[See Japan Times movie listings]

These days, box-office ranking is cited as some sort of scientific fact, as if a big opening weekend somehow proves more so than any genuine acclaim that a film is "good." (Just don't ask about week No.2 once the word is out.) Take a look at the new Jim Carrey comedy, "Bruce Almighty," one of the few "big" films showing this holiday season.

News photo
Morgan Freeman and Jim Carrey in "Bruce Almighty"

The film's press kit is quick to point out that "Bruce Almighty" opened at No.1 in 23 countries, that it knocked "Matrix Reloaded" from the top position, that it grossed $85 million in four days, that it's the highest-grossing Jim Carrey movie ever, scratch that, the highest-grossing comedy ever!

The ever-escalating process of inflation, saturation openings on an increasing number of screens, advertising budgets in the tens of millions and longer definitions of "opening weekend" (from three days to four, or in the case of "Matrix: Revolutions," the new record holder, five), naturally means that every year will see unprecedented openings for all sorts of films. But aside from logic, one need only dig deeper into the press kit to find another set of stats that tells a different story altogether.

"Bruce Almighty" is directed by Tom Shadyac: a quick glance at his filmography turns up "The Nutty Professor," "The Nutty Professor 2," "Liar, Liar," "Patch Adams," and even shudder a Kevin Costner film ("The Calling"). Basically, what we have here is a master craftsman of in-flight entertainment, a maker of broad, bland, fairly juvenile comedy, with a penchant for "heartwarming" sentimentality. Now as to whether "Bruce Almighty" is God's gift to cinema-going mankind this holiday season, you can believe the box office, or you can believe Shadyac's track record take your pick. Like God says to Carrey in the movie, "You can't mess with free will."

Basically, what we're got here is a Frank Capra movie with toilet humor and a Jimmy Stewart strung out on crystal meth who hit his head hard when he fell down a flight of stairs and hasn't been the same since. Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, an amiable but self-centered and overly vain TV journalist. Bruce feels chagrined at being stuck doing the "light" human-interest stories on stuff like the World's Largest Cookie, while his smarmy rival, Evan (Steve Carell), is on the fast track to becoming the new anchorman. So obsessed with his career is Bruce that he fails to recognize just how much he's turning off his live-in girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston).

After one particularly bad day, Bruce throws a tantrum on air and is quickly relieved of his job. He then gets an ass-whupping from some gangbangers and wrecks his car. Bruce rants at God over his bad fortune: "Smite me, almighty smiter!" he yells, glibly tempting fate.

Cue the supernatural, eye-opening experience that will allow Bruce to put all his troubles in perspective and learn to appreciate what he has been blessed with. He is summoned to a mysteriously empty all-white loft, where he gets to meet God himself, as played by Morgan Freeman, perhaps the only Hollywood actor with enough wise-old-man gravitas to try and pull this off (Well, Donald Rumsfeld seems to think he's God, but his performances are far too off-putting ...)

God tells Bruce he's had enough of his whining, and tells him to try being God for a while and see what it's like, thus bestowing all his powers upon him at least within the limits of Buffalo, N.Y., where Bruce lives. The film gets its biggest laughs here, as Bruce tries out his powers in the most trivial ways: creating wind to blow up a hot babe's skirt, unleashing a plague of locusts on the gangbangers, giving Grace a taste of ahem the "second coming," and parting the waters of a bowl of tomato soup.

Good gags, maybe, but the material infuriated religious-minded censors in Malaysia and drew some flak from other religious conservatives who don't find the parodying of biblical miracles amusing. Using the miracle of walking on water as just one more gag right alongside a dog spraying pee all over Bruce's apartment will no doubt offend some particularly those busybodies who are always searching for some reason to take offense.

Of course, to get the film's premise in the first place, you have to buy the idea of an all-seeing, all-knowing God, who is open to entreaties to personally intervene in the lives of humans, i.e. that prayers might be granted. This writer doesn't believe in that possibility anymore, largely due to the fact that he still has to sit through Jim Carrey movies.

Carrey's been the main culprit in some of the most catatonically stupid films committed to celluloid in the past decade, and it's impossible now to watch that rubbery rictus grin without wincing. Even when he's good, you're still cringing in anticipation of how energetically unfunny he can get. Carrey sometimes can't even get through a simple line like, "It's good" without trying it out again in full retard mode, braying "It's guuuuuuhhhd!" Or catch him yelling "Heigh-ho, silver!" while jiggling his chin back and forth like a bobble-neck doll. Like Robin Williams when he's off the leash, Carrey is an actor who all too often mistakes hyperactivity for humor.

True, the film does have a few good laughs: Steve Carell steals the show with an on-air freak-out, as Bruce makes the suave anchorman start speaking in tongues. Almost worth the price of admission. Almost. But if you're flying overseas this holiday season, you might want to take a wait-and-see approach.

CORRECTION: There was a mistake in the Dec.3 review of "Finding Nemo." Pixar Animation Studios is not a subsidiary of Disney; it is an independent company and its films are co-financed by Disney.

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