The prospect of Jim Carrey as a guy substituting for a vacationing God might thrill his fans and send tremors into the hearts of his detractors, but the reality of “Bruce Almighty” won’t exactly rock anyone’s world. There’s remarkably little done with a premise snatched from high-concept heaven, adding yet another file to the growing cabinet of under-realized comedies. Carrey’s performance as an ambitious TV reporter challenging the Man Upstairs remains mostly on-track throughout, but lacks his characteristic ratio of comic fireballs. Pic’s theatrical horizon looks reliably solid, but doesn’t show signs of being a breakout summer hit.
The rematching of Carrey and director Tom Shadyac shows both of in a relatively subdued state, particularly from their younger, “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” days. With both having ventured unsuccessfully into pure drama just prior to this project (“The Majestic” for Carrey, “Dragonfly” for Shadyac), the joint return to comedy would have seemed like an elixir. Instead of rejuvenation, though, “Bruce Almighty” is the routine work of veterans.
As Bruce Nolan, funnyman reporter for a Buffalo TV station, Carrey has a chance to ham it up in front of two cameras at once. Bruce is frustrated because he believes he’s paid his dues, is “pushing 40,” and sees rival reporter Evan Baxter (“Daily Show” regular Steven Carell) as poised to beat him out for the nightly anchor position. He’s a worrywart to g.f. Grace’s (Jennifer Aniston) domesticating calm, and is convinced after Evan does snare the anchor job that God is out to get him — or worse, just ignores him and the mediocre life he shares with Grace.
Shadyac works up a few visual jokes, such as a resilient pager by which God (Morgan Freeman, in his best ice cream suit) first contacts Bruce to set up a meeting, but little of it is either magical or uproarious. Some jokey images, such as a pun on the parting of the Red Sea, grab the imagination, while others, from an exploding file cabinet that contains God’s data on Bruce to Bruce’s nonhouse-trained pooch (a nod to “Ace Ventura”) appear disconnected.
Out to teach this egotistical human a lesson, God takes a holiday and allows Bruce to take over the reins for a while. Typically, Bruce performs supernatural acts to please only himself, resulting in amazing sex for Grace. But since she’s led to believe Bruce is about to propose to her, then crushed when she realizes his eyes remain solely on Evan’s job, she dumps him, leading to Bruce’s emotional downfall and the inevitable third-act messages regarding human goodness, which are at least less gooey than those in Shadyac’s “Patch Adams.”
The potential for Carrey as God to wreak comic havoc is not only kept under a tight rein, it remains inconsistently realized. Shadyac and writers Steve Koran and Mark O’Keefe (also credited with the story) along with Steve Oedekerk never work out the logic of the greater concept. When, for instance, Bruce uses his powers to bring the moon closer to the Earth for the right romantic touch, it seems to trigger only one natural disaster instead of the thousands that would surely happen. Yet, apparently, without filling in viewers on many of the offscreen calamities, the movie subsequently shows local doomsayers howling about the end of the world.
This unsure approach carries over to the cast, many of whom are underused. Grace is cornered into the position of merely reacting to Bruce, and Aniston can only stare and remain starkly unfunny. Freeman appears born in his suit and takes it on with cool gravitas, as does Philip Baker Hall as Bruce’s news director boss. Among supporter thesps, Carell has by far the prime laugh moments, while fellow comic Nora Dunn’s nearly invisible role must have been discarded in the cutting room.
The production gives Buffalo and environs (much of it backlot, with Niagara Falls locations) the sunny Chamber of Commerce treatment. Production designer Linda Descenna’s depiction of God’s office as a giant all-white warehouse is far more inspired than John Debney’s sleep-inducing music.