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June 22, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | June 22, 2007 |

I had no idea that a Steve Carell movie could actually be less subtle than one starring Jim Carrey, but that’s pretty much the case with Tom Shadyac’s Evan Almighty, the sequelish spinoff of 2003’s Bruce Almighty that once again finds God intervening in the life of an ordinary man to get him to open up his eyes and change the world for the better. The original film was in many ways just another opportunity for Carrey to shamelessly mug for the camera, feeding off the ever-diminishing love he needs to get from an audience, but it was also a legitimately nuanced look at modern faith, hope, and love, and if it ended with a literal deus ex machina and everyone standing around getting the warm fuzzies, then at least it came by it honestly. Carrey’s Bruce was a proud and skeptical man, and to see him abuse the limited powers he’d been granted by God only to have it all backfire was a smart way for Shadyac, an avowed Catholic, to spin a parable about man’s inability to serve as a substitute for God. But Evan Almighty eschews even that minimal level of character development in favor of a broader, simpler approach: Evan (Carell) barely rebels against God, and certainly doesn’t fight him the way he says he does. Similarly, the relationship between Bruce and his girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston), has been replaced by a fiercely dull marriage between Evan and Joan (Lauren Graham), perhaps the blandest wife in any Christian movie ever. The sharp edges of the first film have been sanded off to turn what could have been an enterprising inquiry of faith and doubt into a goofy, pointless movie that will likely bore the children at whom the occasional poop jokes are so desperately aimed. It’s sweet, and light, but because it lacks a willingness to actually bump against the darker colors, its palette remains muted. How can you appreciate the sunshine if you’ve never seen the night?

In the first film, Evan worked with Bruce as a news anchor in Buffalo, so Evan Almighty opens with Evan and co-anchor Susan Ortega (an uncredited Catherine Bell) playing a montage detailing Evan’s campaign for office and eventual election to the House of Representatives. Shadyac is big on montages; Evan Almighty has at least four that I can remember, which is probably why the entire film strains to hit the 90-minute mark. After winning the office, Evan relocates his wife and three sons to a tony new subdivision in a Virginia valley that’s been hollowed out for rows of McMansions and Hummers, both of which Evan gleefully possesses. Climbing into bed that first night, Joan begins to live up to her name by telling Evan what his indistinguishable sons are praying for, which prompts her to ask Evan what’s on his list of things to discuss with God. Genuine prayer is almost impossible to capture on film because it’s the public performance of what is at heart a private act, and Joan’s questions come across less like a discussion between husband and wife and more like the start of a spiel from a missionary proselytizing on a street corner. Sure, the subject is handled with respect, and Evan’s prayer that God would “please help (him) change the world” is done with humor and tenderness. But the film gets there far too quickly, as if Shadyac and screenwriter Steve Oedekerk are worried that showing a character move from indifference through doubt to faith is too risky for a story that needs to hit the nail right on the head.

Evan soon starts getting strange deliveries — a box of tools, pallets of wood — which is about when God (Morgan Freeman) shows up, asking that Evan use the tools and lumber to construct an ark in preparation for the coming flood. Evan brushes off the crazy guy in the cream-colored sweaters and returns to work on the Hill, where he’s busy settling into his new role as a congressman and being courted by the senior Congressman Long (John Goodman), who’s looking for Evan’s support on a bill that would gut national parks and sell them off to private investors, which is made pretty clear right off the bat but which predictably slides right past Evan. He’s understandably distracted: Birds and other animals have begun following him everywhere in pairs, pooping on his car and generally freaking him out. His hair and beard also start growing beyond his control, making him look like a prophet crossed with the Unabomber. That’s actually another sign of the film’s deference to the family audiences it’s seeking out: lame beard jokes. It’s more than a little odd that two major comedies this summer — Knocked Up and Evan Almighty — prominently feature a character whose out-of-control facial hair prompts a series of riffs and references in the dialogue to other hirsute figures in pop culture history. But while Knocked Up went for the jugular, the beard gags in Evan Almighty play it much, much safer; in other words, no one is actually going to suggest for a second that Evan looks like the Unabomber, because for every dozen people who would laugh, there’d be one confused little kid who would then have to have their parents explain the grooming habits of domestic terrorism in order for the punchline to work, making it a pretty depressing way-homer. Ditto, any nods to John Walker Lindh. The fully bearded Evan is referred to once by his eldest son as “John Lennon,” which kinda works but isn’t nearly the most iconic image of Lennon. Congressman Long also calls him “the fifth Beatle,” and Evan’s secretary, Rita (Wanda Sykes), says alternately that he looks like a Beegee and like he “fell down a mine shaft.” They’re all decent laughs, but considering that this weird little patch of comedy has already been beautifully plowed by Knocked Up, it only adds to the weakness of Evan Almighty that the only jokes here are ones about being attacked by werewolves.

And, well, that’s pretty much where what little conflict existed in the story comes to a quiet end. Evan goes about building his ark, but Joan, at first so faithful and open to the possibility of interacting with God, becomes frightened by Evan’s massive construction project and takes the kids to her mother’s for a night simply because the screenplay lazily has her do so. Evan, never really at odds with his creator to begin with, becomes downright beatific as the story progresses until he’s issuing low-key, vaguely Zen statements like “God chose all of us.” It’s not at all harmless, but it’s also not very meaningful. Carell is perfectly affable in the role, and his nervous, empty-eyed bumblings are a more relatable brand of everyman than the star performer Carrey always makes himself out to be. John Michael Higgins is reliable as ever as Marty, Evan’s chief of staff, and Jonah Hill steals every one of his too few scenes as a gushing aide in Evan’s office. He delivers more and bigger laughs than anyone else.

In the first film, Bruce taunted God by saying he could do a better job, after which God granted him certain powers, which in turn led Bruce to the discovery that dealing with the concerns and prayers of millions of people while also granting them free will to destroy each other is a task beyond mortal comprehension. And it was that discovery of his own humility that led Bruce back to the arms of his girlfriend and to a better understanding of his perception of God. But Evan has no such external motivator: He begins the movie calmly faithful, and ends it the same way. “I fought you every step of the way,” Evan says to God at one point, but that’s not quite true; rather, Evan had a few misgivings but then marched bravely ahead. There are some nice moments here, and some real glimpses at what could have been a truly moving little comedy about one man’s epic and unpredictable relationship with the Almighty. But the film is an inevitable failure in its attempts to bring nuance to the life of its hero; and unfortunately, there was never any doubt about that.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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