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Heavenly Ham 

Jim Carrey takes slapstick to a spiritual plane.

On the First Day, God made Jennifer Aniston his main - squeeze.
  • On the First Day, God made Jennifer Aniston his main squeeze.

Jim Carrey may be the second coming of Jerry Lewis, but no one's ever mistaken him for God. Clearly, he'd like to change that -- at least for now, at least at the box office. Hey, you'd feel the same way if your last movie was The Majestic.

In Bruce Almighty, Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a self-absorbed TV reporter in Buffalo, who gets a shot at playing the Supreme Being. Because this is not the kind of opportunity that comes around every day -- for movie comedians or TV reporters -- Carrey tries to get everything he can out of it. Which is to say, he unleashes his whole familiar repertoire of Silly Putty contortions and extravagant hamming, and then some, in the service of a mostly slapstick comedy that means to remind us of the difference between mere power and the wise use of power. By the end, Bruce lays the whole enlightenment thing on pretty thick. Still, we could do worse in these war-torn times than to absorb a moral lesson like this one.

As conceived by the star, the movie's three writers (Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe, and Steve Oedekerk), and director Tom Shadyac (Carrey's old running mate from Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, and Liar, Liar), Bruce Nolan is one deeply disgruntled barrel of laughs -- the emotional kin of Bill Murray's cynical weatherman in Groundhog Day. Dispatched by Channel 7 to cover cutesy stuff -- the giant cookie story, the anniversary heartwarmer -- our hero does it with a certain style, but what he really covets is the station's soon-to-be-vacant anchor slot. Already stewing in envy, Bruce goes ballistic (does Jim Carrey know any other way?) when a supercilious rival (Steven Carell) gets the job. At the end of a nightmarish day -- fired at work, beaten by thugs, car smashed into a light pole -- he curses God for his bad luck.

It's not Charlton Heston who responds, or even Donald Rumsfeld. Happily, the God of this movie's sweet dreams is no wrathful thunderclap, nor the chilling voice of doom. He is dignified, loose-limbed Morgan Freeman, come to earth as a hip, silver-haired janitor equipped with a mop, a bucket of suds, and a gift for put-on. His divine proposal? Unhappy Bruce can now have the job -- God's job. Just two rules. He can't tell anyone, and no messing with free will.

If this concept isn't sheer heaven for Jim Carrey, what could be? Before we can say Jehovah, egotistical Bruce is bringing his newfound omnipotence to bear on a series of hilarious vanity projects -- blowing a pretty girl's skirt over her head à la Marilyn Monroe, walking on Lake Erie in his Reeboks, commanding his ill-trained dog to sit on the toilet. He smites his old enemy at the TV station by reducing him to a fit of on-air gibberish and, just for grins, gives his bewildered, live-in girlfriend (Friends' Jennifer Aniston) an instant breast augmentation. "Imagine the Creator as a low comedian," H.L. Mencken once suggested, "and at once the world becomes explicable." For an hour or so, Carrey and these writers take their inspiration from the sour old bard of Baltimore.

It wouldn't do, though -- at least not in Hollywood -- to let Bruce's unbridled id run amok without consequence, or to close the proceedings without a surge of spiritual uplift. The greedy Bruce-God who gives himself a $100,000 Italian sports car and the power-mad Bruce-God who delights in parting his tomato soup like the Red Sea may be the secret God of our collective fantasies. But by the time this comedy hits the top of its arc, Bruce has to pay the piper, omniscience-wise. For one thing, his head and his computer both get bombarded with unanswered prayers, and if the misanthrope doesn't begin to understand something about mastery, all of Buffalo could suddenly face Apocalypse. As epiphanies go, Bruce's may be a little grandiose -- he literally sees the light -- but the witty and playful Morgan Freeman hasn't been this endearing since Driving Miss Daisy. As the cool, all-knowing foil to Carrey's scenery-chomping frenzies, Freeman very nearly grabs the movie right out of the comedian's eager hands. The casting here is ideal: The fatherly God and his agitated surrogate pull off a nice little comic duet.

There's no point here in trying to sort out the theological correctness or incorrectness of Bruce Almighty, nor in predicting exactly which groups may be offended by its good-natured blasphemies. Some believers objected to the low-rent miracles George Burns performed in Oh, God!, and others have still not gotten over Monty Python's more or less constant assault on Christian piety, and that's probably as it should be. The real wonder here is that God has chosen to visit Buffalo at all. If you've ever spent three days there in February, you know how the place must have tested even His infinite patience.

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