"Lighten up." That's what people say when you dare to criticize a big dopey comedy, especially a potential summer blockbuster. Didn't think the Shrek movies were that funny? Were you annoyed by the sexism in one of the guy-centric comedies that seem to be taking over the genre? Didn't crack a smile during Napoleon Dynamite? Then you need to lighten up, obviously, and stop complaining just because the comedy film wasn't very funny to you. And I predict that by the end of this review of Evan Almighty, people are going to tell me to lighten up, and will probably accuse me of having no sense of humor, because I didn't love the film unquestionably.
Evan Almighty, the sequel to the 2003 Jim Carrey vehicle Bruce Almighty, is in fact funny at times, because a cast like this with such superb comic timing and such charismatic screen appeal cannot help but entertain you. You're aware that the dialogue is dumb and the situation is lame and yet, thanks to the actors, you laugh anyway. And after the movie is over you feel almost like you've been conned, and you're not entirely sure what was so funny in the first place.
This is not a movie that entertains with surprise plot twists; if you've seen the trailer, you know pretty much the whole storyline. Evan Baxter (Steve Carell, reprising and expanding his role from Bruce Almighty) has just been elected to Congress, and he and his family move to a lavish house in a new development near Washington, D.C. Evan drives a Hummer, selects rainforest-harvested wood for his home cabinets, and generally doesn't care much about the world around him, despite his political slogan: "Change the World!" One of the senior Congressmen (John Goodman) takes the new politician under his wing ... but the extra work causes Evan to spend less time with his kids. After he and his family have a moment of prayer for change in their lives and help from God ... God (Morgan Freeman) appears. And God has decided that Evan is going to change the world, whether he likes it or not, and requires him to build an ark and get all Noah-fied in preparation for an upcoming flood of some kind.
Sight gags, character quirks and reactions, and one-liners are Evan Almighty's stock in trade, balanced by the warm fuzziness of a guy who learns about the importance of family, and the environment, and spirituality. (Those of you who were relieved that Surf's Up had no pro-environmental message may not be so pleased with this film.) There are lots of jokes about animals, especially animal poop and spit, although my favorite animal scene involved fish in a tank and no excretions whatsoever. Evan's obsession with his appearance in the first half of ths film also provides some good incidental humor -- once you realize this is a guy who attempts to shave his nose hair, you've got his character pegged.
One difficulty I had with the film was during Evan's transformation from obsessively neat and tidy guy into a Biblical-looking personage, which he tries to fight at first, but of course God always wins in these tussles. Evan's hair grows longer overnight and cannot be shaved or cut; he develops a craving for unleavened bread; and he's forced to give up his suits for flowing robes. Is anyone else reminded of Tim Allen's character in The Santa Clause? The sequences are so similar that it is a little disturbing, as if equating religion and Santa -- something that faith-based groups might not find very funny. In fact, they might not like the portrayal of God at all, but of course they just need to lighten up, right? The film may trivialize religion in some ways, but it does avoid veering into any disrespect or sacrilege.
Also, if you were personally affected by post-Katrina floods or any natural disaster, the idea of potentially watching a flood (whether it actually occurs in the film or not) that will wipe away homes and perhaps even people might cause you discomfort while watching Evan Almighty. I realize that most audience members won't be affected by this at all, but personally I had trouble with anticipating whether those kinds of scenes were going to be shown. The ultimate explanation behind the whole "flood" aspect of the plot might in fact have been inspired by the situation in New Orleans, in hopes of teaching us all a little lesson, but that didn't redeem the distaste I felt at times.
The bright spot in Evan Almighty that makes the movie at all worthwhile is the cast. An experienced group of actors and actresses with impeccable comic timing help to gloss over all of the flaws and weaknesses in the script. Carell is especially enjoyable to watch in the first part of the film, when he's a bit of a thoughtless jerk; unfortunately, as the movie progresses and he has to be improved, he's not nearly as funny. Wanda Sykes, as his assistant, takes the dumbest one-liners you'd ever hear on screen and makes them work -- I kept realizing that I was laughing at something cliched and inane, just because she said it. Goodman is the perfect Washington longtime politician, and Jonah Hill, one of the stars of the upcoming Superbad, has a quirky little role as Evan's researcher. Lauren Graham is pretty much wasted as The Wife, sadly. Freeman is a delight onscreen even though he's essentially playing the usual Morgan Freeman character. (I would attempt some discourse about God in this film as one of the "magical Negro" characters Spike Lee rants against, but -- I know, I should lighten up.)
Director Tom Shadyac seems to be trying to balance two goals: a comedy relying on very broad humor, mostly physical; and a sweet movie with a spiritual heart, about family and religion. Unfortunately, the combination of pratfalls and platitudes doesn't quite work. Evan Almighty makes you wish you could watch the cast in something well written, with the snappy dialogue and solid storyline they (and we) deserve, instead of a big-budget, lumbering spectacle that moves about as smoothly as, well, a giant handmade ark. In short, maybe the movie needed to lighten up a little, not me.