Much has been made of Jim Carrey's attempts to become a serious actor. "The Truman Show" started Carrey's slide into dramatic roles, and the pairing of "Man on the Moon" and "The Majestic" continued it. Neither of the latter two pictures received much interest from the public, but both showed that Carrey had potential beyond comedy. Nothing wrong with "Ace Ventura", mind you - in fact, it's a blueprint for the movie that Carrey should have done - low-budget, good concept and let the actor run wild like there's no tomorrow.
"Bruce Almighty" could have been a concept that resulted in Carrey magic. It doesn't, and all signs point to director Tom Shadyac as the guilty party. Shadyac, the filmmaker who found unexplained success with "Patch Adams" a few years ago, has since been carrying on a crusade for sentimentality in cinema. In "Bruce", he abruptly halts the comedy in the last half hour and brings on heaping helpings of sentimentality and sappiness.
Carrey stars as Bruce Nolan, a reporter for a small Buffalo, NY network. He's not the anchor, but the "human intrest" reporter, going out there for the stories that no one else will cover, largely because they don't want to - Bruce's task as the movie opens is to cover the creation of a giant cookie. Upset with his lot in life, he snaps while covering a story at Niagra Falls one day, has a fight with live-in girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston) and crashes his car. He steps out of the vehicle and promptly starts yelling at God.
Afterwards, Bruce keeps getting paged by a number he's not familiar with. When he finally answers, he's invited for a new job. Turns out that God (played by Morgan Freeman) is working out of a building in the city's industrial district. Bruce thinks that he can do God's job better than he can, so God gives Bruce the chance to show what he can do while God goes on vacation. What does Bruce do with his powers? A little revenge, a little fun time with Grace, a little traffic parting and teaching the dog to use the bathroom instead of going all over (the dog going all over is a bit that's only repeated in the film, oh, about 10 times). Oh, and he parts his red soup. None of these are particularly funny or inspired ideas and I didn't find them worthy of a chuckle. There's a good scene where Carrey, devilish grin and all, gets back at the guy who stole his anchor job, making the anchor talk gibberish on the air. It's one of only a few funny bits in 100 minutes.
The movie plays it safe every step of the way, which is terribly unfortunate. Going back to my example of "Ace Ventura", Carrey really was at his best there because it didn't really matter. That film probably cost what the star got paid here, and expectations for it were somewhere between slim-and-none, allowing him to let loose. Here, his jokes and mannerisms feel largely calculated and predictable. Two attempts at new catchphrases in "Bruce" - "B-E-A-utiful" and "It's Gooood" pale in comparison to Ace's "Alrighty then." They also feel painfully like what they are - obvious attempts at creating new catchphrases.
There's several other problems in the film. First, there's the fact that Bruce is an unlikable character. He thinks of nothing but himself and doesn't, well, thank God that he has a girlfriend who not only cares about him, but happens to look like Jennifer Aniston. There's the possibilities that the movie overlooks completely (which are many), such as what happens when Bruce simply hits "Yes" as the answer to the millions of prayers that he receives. What if two of those people wished for the opposite thing in regards to something? There's also a short and disturbing glimpse at what Bruce's attempt to pull in the moon (literally) for his girlfriend does in another part of the world. That's never followed up on later, making Bruce's unsympathetic attempt to become a better person even harder to care about. There's a good deal of the film devoted to Bruce planning how to get Grace back, but Aniston hardly gets a character to play (although she does quite well with what she has) and the two don't exactly have much chemistry to begin with. There's really no story here; "Bruce" is more a series of episodes, both comedic and dramatic, occasionally somewhat entertaining and often uncomfortably boring, all awkwardly pieced together into one very uneven whole.
This is Carrey's attempt to show both sides at once - the dramatic actor and the physical comedian, but it simply doesn't work. I was one of the few who liked Carrey in "The Majestic", where director Frank Darabont really brought out a fine performance from the actor. Despite the fact that the movie was too long by 30 minutes, "The Majestic" never forced a response or tried to be too manipulative. Shadyac never builds to an emotional moment - all the sudden, the film turns sappy in a way that's heavy-handed and almost obnoxious. His "Liar, Liar" with Carrey was sappy at times, but not nearly as bad as this film occasionally gets.
Hmmm....what else? Oh, there's the fact that it's terribly obvious that the movie was shot on backlots. Morgan Freeman - the best thing about the movie, giving a perfect, subtle performance - is underused. Catherine Bell ("Jag") wanders in occasionally, but feels more like a plot device than a character. Philip Baker Hall is stuck with a minor role as Bruce's boss. Aniston once again shows much promise and, once again, finds herself in a thankless role.
There's a lot of great potential for smart comedy in this tale and there are points in "Bruce Almighty" where it looks like it's going to run with the concept, but it never does. A pretty big disappointment and - in my opinion - Carrey's worst film.