That's all the laughs $200 million-plus dollars buys? I didn't see Evan Almighty in the theaters this summer, although I did watch with bemusement as major media consistently referred to it as a failed "Christian comedy" (I don't remember its predecessor, Bruce Almighty, being similarly labeled a "Christian blockbuster"). After watching Evan Almighty, it was pretty clear to me that the movie failed not because of any overt Christian sentiments in the film, but because it's just not a very strong, funny movie. It's such a confused film in both intent and execution, that any number of miscalculations add up to a film with which no one was really satisfied.
Evan Almighty's story is fairly simple and straightforward. Evan Baxter (Steve Carell), a newly elected congressman from Buffalo, New York, arrives with his wife Joan (Lauren Graham), and his three sons, at his ultra-posh new housing development in West Virginia. Fully anticipating a stellar new career in congress, Evan is taken aback at the swanky new office he unexpectedly gets, as well as the unprecedented invitation to co-sponsor a bill - two things that just don't happen for first-day junior congressmen. His suspiciously generous benefactor? Congressman Chuck Long (John Goodman), who wants Evan's help in pushing through a bill that will open up national parks to development.
Naturally, such an opportunity creates difficulty at home, particularly with his boys who feel he doesn't have any time for them. But something even bigger is causing stress for Evan. God (Morgan Freeman) visits him and asks him to build an ark. Evan, finally convinced that he has indeed been visited by God (the constant references at home and work to the numbers 6:14 - corresponding to Genesis - as well as all manners of animals supernaturally following him), goes ahead and starts his ark, with his boys helping out. But Joan isn't happy with Evan's new appearance (a beard that won't shave off, and robes that Evan can't cast off) or his new direction in life, so she ups and leaves him, taking the boys with her. Evan's congressional aides (Wanda Sykes, John Michael Higgins) aren't exactly pleased, either, with Evan's seemingly irrational behavior, fearing that he's going to blow his entire career by refusing to sign on with Congressman Long's development bill. Will Evan finish his ark? Will his family return to him? Will God wipe out the entire planet with a apocalyptic flood?
There just aren't enough carefully thought out ideas in Evan Almighty to sustain the premise of the picture. Evan Almighty was widely reported as the most expensive comedy ever produced, and I wish I could report that bloated excess is its main comedy killer, but frankly, we don't even get "excess" here. Watching the film, it's really tough to see where the $200 million went. Sure, there are lots of CGI effects (the animal sequences fare far better than the final "flood" sequence), but Evan Almighty doesn't look any more packed with effects, or sets, or sweeping location work, or any of the other elements that at least let the viewer know that major money was dumped into the project, than other films out there. Evan Almighty fails because it's such a surprisingly tame and paltry exercise.
The major plot elements are presented in such an abbreviated manner that I'm not surprised there were reports that major post-production tampering went on with the film - and that's assuming the linking material was there in the first place. Particularly annoying is the major plot point where Joan leaves Evan, which only makes sense in the context of necessitating Evan being abandoned and alone for the second act of the film. Earlier, the Joan character was the understanding one, gently suggesting to Evan that he pray for guidance in his new role as congressman. So then why would this caring, loving wife leave Evan? The film doesn't present enough conflict at home for her actions to be justified as anything other than a convenient plot device. Evan Almighty may want us to value family, but quite frankly, I can get a more concise, more meaningful meditation on family from the average Waltons episode.
The domestic drama in Evan Almighty is vague at best (please, Hollywood: enough with the "Dad is too busy to love us" theme, okay?), but the comedy is practically subterranean. Seriously, the best the makers of Evan Almighty could come up with are old animal jokes (from Doctor Dolittle), physical transformation jokes (Evan's whole "endless beard" sequence is right out of The Santa Clause), or fairly lame physical shtick during the ark sequences (how many times did they think it would be funny to see Evan fall off a log)? That's it? You would think the congressional setting would provide plenty of opportunities for satire, but the most we get is the supposedly funny notion of Evan showing up to work in a beard and robes, and the gratingly ineffectual Wanda Sykes spouting tired one-liners. Whoo-pee.
Carell, who's a terrific comedic actor in the right setting, is totally wrong for this kind of film. Or at least, he's used poorly, particularly during the second half of the film. On his sensational TV series, The Office (in my mind, one of, if not the, best network comedies out there right now), Carell excels at the loose, improvisational feel of the long, hand-held camera shots that mark that series, and which allow Carell to get a work out in his comedic reactions. Here in Evan Almighty, though, Carell is straight-jacketed in director Tom Shadyac's restrictive framing. Naturally, the first half of Evan Almighty provides opportunities for Carell to get off a couple of funny reaction shots as he realizes that he's being called upon by God to build an ark (some of the animal shots, with Carell covered in birds, or being followed by fish in a tank, are amusing). But as the film progresses, and Carell wears more makeup and costumes, he becomes embalmed, until he's reduced to becoming a somnambulate (watch his scene near the end where his kids come back; he's barely speaking above a reverential whisper). Whatever energy Carell had at the beginning of the film is gradually buried under the ponderous premise.
When Evan Almighty was greenlighted and announced in the trades, I immediately pegged the film's biggest obstacle: what are they going to do with the flood? Obviously, with a big-budget special effects comedy, the flood would be the film's gigantic finale. But how do you twist the biblical story that everyone knows as God essentially "starting over," and wiping out the earth's population? Not exactly big laughs comedy material (although John Huston did just that in The Bible, where his Noah sequence is far funnier - and far more realistic in those pre-CGI days - than anything you'll see in Evan Almighty). So naturally, the makers of Evan Almighty tweak the origins of the story, and say it's really a lesson in love, not God's vengeance; I'm not by any means religious, but even I know that's a stretch. And so the finale comes off laughably small scale - it's a lake that floods, threatening a valley, not the entire earth - which is curious since so much money was spent on the effects (which aren't too spectacular here). One quick boat ride and Evan Almighty is over. And the viewer is left wondering, "Is that it? That was the big build up?" Not only does Evan Almighty's message not resonate (don't look too closely at it, or you may be offended - God has the time to go through this big buildup to have Evan save our national parks, while saving a bunch of yuppies from a flood because he loves them?), Evan Almighty doesn't even have the gumption or invention to be a flat-out comedy spectacle. It's weak on both levels, and with a price tag at over $200 million dollars, that's inexcusable.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.