A film review by Craig J. Koban
EVAN ALMIGHTY ½
2007, PG, 96 mins.
Evan: Steve Carell / God: Morgan Freeman / Joan: Lauren Graham / Rep. Long: John Goodman / Rita: Wanda Sykes / Rep. Burrows: Harve Presnell
Directed by Tom Shadyac / Written by Steve Oedekerk / Based on a story by Oedekerk, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow.
I like to think that God – if he is out there - has a sly sense of humor. After all, he gave mankind freewill, which in itself is some sort of cruel practical joke that must make him wince with laughter all of the time. Perhaps even more funny is what people do for his sake.
Consider the new biblical comedy EVAN ALMIGHTY, which in itself is a sequel (well...kind of) to the 2003 Jim Carrey comedy BRUCE ALMIGHTY. That film concerned how a mild-mannered TV reporter – while trying to deal with his own lack of faith – was given a highly seductive and undeniably cool gift from the big guy upstairs himself: he was embodied with all of God’s powers in order to see what he has to deal with on a daily basis. He also was given God’s extraordinary, omnipotent gifts to see whether or not he could do a better job than the Almighty himself.
Part of that film’s drollness was embedded in how Bruce misused his powers. He took advantage of them in seemingly normal ways (like making his wife have better sex with him and rigging professional hockey playoff games). He was also very smart by organizing the world’s daily prayers in e-mail form. However, the film had some sobering commentary despite its overt zaniness, and this occurs when Bruce does realize that – gee whiz – being God ain’t that easy. I fondly remember one of the film’s funniest – and meaningful – exchanges when Bruce asked God, “How do you make someone love you without affecting their free will.” God matter-of-factly responds, “Welcome to my world.”
As a comeback comedic vehicle for Carrey, I liked BRUCE ALMIGHTY for its silliness and spirit. It also had its heart in the right spot. I think that the makers of EVAN ALMIGHTY also had their hearts in the right spot, but their brains were curiously absent. Truth be told, BRUCE ALMIGHTY was a fairly simplistic comedy with a one-note premise, but it went beyond its simple-mindedness and got some decent comedic mileage out of it. It also wisely did not feel the need to be too overly preachy and sentimental.
I think that the gigantic error that EVAN ALMIGHTY makes is that (a) it’s simply not very funny and (b) it's an ostentatiously overpriced, sermonizing sitcom with little actual faith in it. The fact that this film was made on a budget that eclipsed previous entries in the LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS films is kind of jaw dropping. Exiting the theatre I was dealing with disparaging voices asking me, “So, is this what nearly $200 million dollars buys these days?”
The film’s laughably huge budget – and misappropriation of it – is not its only damning trait. Even more blasphemous is its shamefully condescending and trite religious allegory that it tries to sell. The movie has a cute and cuddly message: random acts of kindness will change the world more than any broad action. Oh, it also shouts out to be-good-to-your environment or you’ll pay dire consequences. EVAN ALMIGHTY is proof positive that some definitive divine intervention was required to save this mess. When a film has a talent squad of reputable performers and tries to marry incredibly lazy sight gags and physical comedy with indulgent and dumb biblical allegories and further combine that with disaster set pieces akin to TITANIC, then you know you have a recipe for a inanely shallow, preposterous, and dreadfully laugh-free religious comedy. And not only that, but can’t anyone have the nerve enough to do a faith-based comedy with a bit of subversive recklessness?
Hell, even the OLD TESTAMENT had some edge.
Before I go further, I will go on record to say that I am a huge fan of Steve Carell’s work. He stood out in his hilarious supporting character in ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY, as he did in a small cameo in BRUCE ALMIGHTY, playing an egotistical and amoral newsman. He hit comic gold with THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, one of the best comedies in many years, where he showcased how he can alternate between his low-key everyman temperament and zany, capricious goofiness. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE displayed an even more subdued Carell, who managed to inject some quiet pathos in his subtly funny role.
No doubt about it, he is capable of being insidiously funny, but he is essentially reduced to a camera-mugging charlatan in EVAN ALMIGHTY. Everything that he did so well in his past comedies has been reduced to lame and mindless gags involving him getting pooped on and being hit in the groin. His reflex reactions to such occurrences are the stuff of B-grade comedic actors, and Carell is certainly better than the material he’s stranded with here. God help him.
At least the first minute builds to the film’s only decent laugh. The film begins with Evan Baxter (Carell) who still – for reasons inexplicable – has his anchor job with a Buffalo station, despite being utterly humiliated on camera via Jim Carrey’s divine intervention in the first film. In BRUCE ALMIGHTY Evan was an unscrupulous a-hole and the first few minutes of EVAN kind of remind us of that. During this moment he goes on air to say good-bye to his viewers and shows a montage of clips of how he went on to win an election to Congress. Evan then turns to the camera with a beyond-obvious fake tear and says, "I feel just like that old Indian standing in front of all that garbage.”
Funny? Yes. Alas, it’s all down hill from that initial big laugh.
Amazingly, EVAN ALMIGHTY does not continue to paint the Evan character as a heel. That's a huge misstep. Now, you’d think that a smart and sardonic script would have had a field day with showing how a lecherous fiend like Evan copes with being in Congress and his later dealings with a higher power. Instead, the screenplay miraculously changes him into a PG-rated, affable, family friendly father/husband figure. He has the obligatory loving and idealistic wife (played by Lauren Graham, who seems utterly lost in her part) and three sons who think the world of him. Of course, this all is set up for another one of those mind-numbing preordained stories of how one overworked hubby spends too much time at work and not enough time with the fam'. There should be no doubt that – at some point in the film – the wife will have her things packed up with the kids and threaten to move back home with her mother. Sigh.
Well, at least the film gives her a valid excuse for wanting to dump Evan. It appears that God (played again by Morgan Freeman, showing unfortunately that he is far too good of a sport to be in this film) comes before him and tells him that he would like Evan to build a gigantic ark. Why? Because a gigantic flood will be coming…on September 22 to be exact. So, he needs Evan to get to work ASAP so he can load up all of the animals and such before they go under water. After some much needed coaxing, Evan realizes that God is serious (he Googles Genesis 6:14 for research purposes). He especially sees that God means business after he starts delivering tons of wood and tools and even manages to turn him physically into a Noah figure (Evan’s hair and beard start to grow very fast, and when he tries to shave it, it grows back instantaneously).
Of course, his wife thinks he’s nuts. Yet, his plucky kids help dear old dad with the construction effort. Hmmm…slap me silly, but the film’s implausibility had me flustered when it shows a montage of the three constructing the ark which – in all fairness – would have been impossible considering its raw size (when the ark is finally revealed, it's an impressive sight, so impressive that an army of a hundred workers could not have plausibly erected it so fast, but I digress). Also, we get all of those predictable and dumb scenes where everyone around him thinks he’s a loon. Okay, so you’d think that Evan would just show a demonstration of how his hair grows back right after he cuts it to his wife, kids, and fellow work colleagues. Nah. The film is not smart enough. It's on Idiot-plot auto-pilot.
Then there is the subplot involving a disreputable senior Congressman played wretchedly by John Goodman. Of course, he initially seems like a good, decent chap, but he is later revealed to be a two-faced environmentally unfriendly politician whose scheming may or may not have something to do with God’s plan for Evan. If seeing a talented performer like Goodman be completely wasted in this film is not disappointing enough, then seeing how the film explains how he, God’s plan, and Evan’s work are all linked together is even more sub-standard. It’s one thing to have a preachy and safe faith comedy, but when it’s also servicing a witless environmental message, then you kind of want to throw your hands up in disbelief.
Then there are all of those animals and the film’s large-scale effects-heavy conclusion. Much has been made about the usage of animals in the film. Yet, there is very little, if any, magic and grandeur in the visuals when it appears that CG composition was used to place the animals in the frame together rather than using any painstaking wrangling efforts. Yup, we get many stock cute animal reactions shots along with images of dogs sniffing at Evan’s crotch and an endless series of bird-crap gags (this film sets a Guinness Book record for most birds defecating on human shoulder gags). When the ark is revealed and the flood inevitably comes, it's initially impressive but it soon gets bogged down into a fairly routine computer generated action sequence. Considering that this is the most expensive comedy in Hollywood history, EVAN ALMIGHTY sure goes out of its way to not show the money on screen.
EVAN ALMIGHTY is a comedy that professes to have soul, but has no tangible one to speak of. There is a more sophisticated satire that could have been made here. I fondly recalled one of my favourite newspaper cartoon strips, Gary Larson’s FAR SIDE, while sitting through it. That strip often took sarcastic shots at God and religious themes without being offensive. The film could have benefited from those strips’ reckless spontaneity and whimsy. Yet, EVAN ALMIGHTY is too wishy-washy, sanctimonious, and sappy for its own good and squanders an opportunity to take the lovably loathsome Evan character from BRUCE ALMIGHTY and use him to good effect here. Regretfully, the film sacrifices intelligence and sophistication with its humor and instead goes for Sunday school inspired religious lessons and juvenile, lame brained jokes. Because of that, EVAN ALMIGHTY is nothing more than an overstuffed, unfunny bore. More than anything, the film reminded me – throughout its 96 minutes – about something that the late Gene Siskel often asked about bad movies:
Is this film more interesting than a documentary about its actors having lunch?
With its $175 million price tag, there certainly must have been a better film to be salvaged out Steve Carell’s off-camera eating habits.