The problems with “Evan Almighty” mostly boil down to questions of scale. The movie warns of an imminent flood, yet delivers only sprinkles of laughter or anything approaching magic. It’s mildly diverting for kids and families in a way that would be perfectly fine as an ABC Family cable project (perhaps before “The 700 Club”), but sails into the summer anchored to all the baggage and expectations a comedy with an enormous budget invites. Universal has courted church groups and will need them to line up, two by two and then some, to fully recoup on their epic investment.
Although ostensibly plucked from the ribs of “Bruce Almighty,” the 2003 comedy hit starring Jim Carrey, “Evan” plays much more like an uncredited sequel to “Oh, God!” garnished with a dollop of “The Santa Clause.” The film also reaffirms, for anyone who doubted it, Steve Carell’s arrival as a major comedy presence and asset to NBC Universal (featuring him in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and NBC’s Emmy-winning “The Office”), and his own appeal surpasses that of the movie itself.
Carell — reprising his role, but going from supporting to lead — and Morgan Freeman as God are the only onscreen ties to “Bruce,” though director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekerk are also back on board. Even so, the narrative immediately shifts venue, jettisoning Evan from his status as a TV anchorman and into a newly won congressional seat. (Not to nitpick, but nobody would be allowed to anchor the news during a campaign and right up until being sworn in, as the movie suggests.)
Loading up the Hummer, Evan, his wife (“Gilmore Girls’ ” Lauren Graham, in an especially thankless spousal role) and their three sons zip off to Washington, where she prays for a closer-knit family and he — while not the praying type — puts in a divine plea for help with his “change the world” campaign theme.
Yet just as Evan begins to navigate his way around D.C. and earn the patronage of a powerful congressional ally (John Goodman), none other than God appears, not-so-gently prodding him to build an ark.
It’s around here where one can see the dollar signs start to pile up, as animals of all kinds (invariably in pairs) begin following Evan around, eager to book their passage on the great big boat. Meanwhile, his rapid hair growth and wardrobe change to a flowing robe render him an object of widespread ridicule (former “Daily Show” chums Jon Stewart and Ed Helms join in the mockery), testing both Evan’s faith and that of his family in him.
Despite its unabashed spiritual overtones (seemingly augmented at every conceivable moment by John Debney’s relentlessly grandiose score), “Evan Almighty” also weaves in an environmental message, either shrewdly or cynically designed to have it both ways. Pic entices religious conservatives — who tend to dismiss Hollywood as a den of iniquity — with talk of God and nothing racier than bird-poop gags, while still stroking the political left with a “save the planet” message.
Beyond the cute animals and considerable technical effort expended to make their integration generally seamless, Shadyac has wisely populated his human roles with big, brassy comedic personalities like John Michael Higgins, Wanda Sykes and Jonah Hill as Evan’s congres-sional aides, who can wring maximum yuks from the minimal material. That said, the sheer number of musical montages and repetitive prat-falls suggests the movie is laboring to stay afloat through feature length, and the special effects during the climactic sequence are at best uneven.
“Evan Almighty” is useful in one broader respect, reminding cultural warriors that hedonistic Hollywood has no qualms about promoting religion if it can visualize a wide swatch of green at the rainbow’s end. As for whether reaching out to that traditionally elusive market sweet-ens Universal’s pot on this slight but expensive confection, well, Evan surely won’t be the only one muttering a little prayer.