It’s too bad that Evan Almighty is merely a fluffy summer trifle. It really wants to be something more – or at the very least, it appears to strive for something greater. And once you hear the entire backstory of the film’s production (studio wants sequel, star Jim Carrey passes, Bruce co-star Carell gets the call up, Noah’s Ark script gets the Almighty revamp) you begin to understand the dilemma. The notion of a modern, everyday man with real problems and a regular, day to day existence, suddenly getting the calling to build the Bible’s big boat, and convincing his skeptical family that he’s not a nutjob, has the makings of a meaningful cinematic statement. Toss in issues of faith, how we as a society react to questions of religion and belief, and a last act catastrophe that allows the special effects to turn the small moments into something epic, and you’d have a potential classic on your hands. It could be a grand motion picture spectacle and masterful human drama. There’s even room for comedy in the complicated mix.
But this is not the road Evan Almighty wants to travel down. Oh, you see it every once in a while – a noble look in lead Steve Carell’s electric eyes, a sequence of natural beauty as the world’s animals prepare to board - but, in general, this is a film that wants to mainstream and dumb down all of its ideas. Indeed, if you start questioning the logic of certain elements and the last act denouement, you soon realize that the entire narrative is built on the foundation of find a “reason” for the finale’s flood (this is not a spoiler, the most recent trailers and TV ads show the floating zoo navigating some rough waters). In turn, this renders most of the comedy flat and much of the emotion hollow. What we wind up with is a decent diversion that never quite gels into a clever comedy, or an Old Testament thriller. Instead, it straddles the fine line between missed opportunity and craven crowdpleaser.
This time around, smarmy news anchor Evan Baxter (Jim Carrey’s nemesis from the first film) is a newly elected Congressman from New York. He moves his doting wife and cookie cutter trio of sons to a massive DC suburb, the kind of planned community that stinks of developer corruption and government payoffs. Sure enough, Evan’s first day on the job finds him admiring his huge new office – and taking an important meeting with a senior Representative. Congressman Long (an uncomfortable John Goodman) wants Evan to support a piece of legislation that would allow our National Parks to be parceled off for – you guessed it - more planned communities. At first, Evan is on board. But then he starts having premonitions about a specific Bible verse (Genesis 6:14), and before you know it, God himself is asking this pampered politician to build his new Ark. Of course, his new objective flies directly in the face of Congressman Long’s plans, and his family’s tolerance of their ‘distant’ dad.
Part of the problem lies with the film’s tone. This is a subtle smile maker that believes it’s an uproarious farce. The script – credited to Steve Oedekerk alone – keeps giving the cast the smallest of jokes, and yet director Tom Shadyac demand his actors swing wildly at each and every one. What are really nothing more than quirky character beats are broadened into the movie’s main yucks. Similarly, the real cinematic strengths of the film (the ark building, the moments of God-like majesty) are marginalized – or worse - become fodder for mindless musical montages. As a matter of fact, you can actually see the focus group reactions to such struggles. They exist in every insert shot of crazy comedian Wanda Sykes cracking wise. So blatantly last minute in their addition that they actually function like a commentary on the film’s success as an entertainment, you can just hear the studio suits screaming “the sassy black assistant scored well. Let’s bolster her profile!”
Sadly, Sykes alone can’t save Evan Almighty’s funny business from flatlining now and then. It doesn’t help matters much that the usually ebullient John Goodman is reduced to a rotund Simon LeGree, or that Knocked Up’sJonah Hill is mandated to play creepy instead of clever. John Michael Higgins does his best with limited material (it’s all those Chris Guest improv fests paying off) and Morgan Freeman is the coolest higher power this side of The Simpsons. But for every decent turn, there is a performance that’s particularly disturbing – and Lauren Graham just can’t stop giving it. She is horrible here, a shrew in a situation she knows nothing about, an irredeemable downer throughout the first two acts of the story. Gilmore Girls or not, her last minute conversion is cold and completely calculated. Even after her so called ‘enlightenment’, she’s the party pooper that no one really invited.
The one saving grace is Carell. Sure, he frequently flies into freak out mode when a far wittier rejoinder would have worked (his declaration of “SHEEEEEEP!” is classic, however). When he tones it down and plays to the possibilities within the story, he almost pulls the entire project off. His interactions with the animals (real and CGI) are warm and wonderful, and he does find the proper balance between cut-up and concerned toward the end. But we need Evan Baxter to be a more well-rounded personality, to have more to his individual eccentricity than a desire to cleanse his nostrils of nose hair. Indeed, the entire narrative simply races right into the God stuff, barely letting us catch our breath before the omens start overriding everything. But this is a movie that’s not intelligent enough to tell the story it should be exploring. Instead, it skirts smarts to go for the easy gag (lots of bird poop and monkey shines) and manipulative sentiment.
Of course, none of these criticisms will really matter. Evan Almighty is expertly forged to be a superficial audience friendly phenomenon, the kind of movie that has critics and the cultured scratching their heads over its continued success. It is all set up and expected payoff, with just a little ‘Go with God’ positivity to flesh out the lilting life affirmations. It’s destined to drum up box office even as word of mouth wavers between excellent and “eh?”. Modernizing the Bible’s many important parables would seem like a filmmaker’s dream – the stories are sensational and the themes strike all the right chords of righteousness. But Evan Almighty just wants to get in, get out, and leave you feeling somewhat entertained along the way. And frankly, that’s all it does.