He Got the Power
Jim Carrey needs a vacation from himself. The rest of us certainly do. The other night (20 May 2003), he appeared on Letterman in a suit that was covered in wires and wide-angle mini-cameras, explaining the stunt as a function of “reality TV.” Quite behind the curve, he suggested that now, he was going to shoot his life as reality and sell it to tv.
Perhaps there was a time when the idea of watching Jim Carrey go through his day was appealing. Or entertaining, extraordinary, startling, even a little freakshowy. Carrey, did, after all, have a run of strangely charismatic persuasion, as if, by sheer will, he might suck you into his vortex of inanity: talking through his butt in Ace Ventura, the “I’m kicking my own ass!” cataclyption of Liar, Liar, even the Star Trek showdown at Medieval Times in The Cable Guy. Recently, though, he’s been hard to take—in movies, at awards ceremonies, in interviews, fretting that no one would take him as seriously as he took himself, that he was being cheated of his dramatic inclinations, that his rubberman incarnation was only a fraction of his vast talent.
Poor him. There was the slight at the 1999 Oscars, when he wasn’t even nominated for his brilliance in The Truman Show. There was the box office drubbing of Man in the Moon (1999), and the painful yellow contact lenses in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). What if it was true, that his once seemingly endless horizon was now limited to variations on “All righty then”? During those darkest nights of the soul, how it must have seemed that this form of Carreyness was the only way to secure millions of dollars in paychecks and profits.
But he’s a trooper, and so he’s back, all Carreyness. In Bruce Almighty, his third movie with director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective , Liar Liar ), Carrey plays another Ace deviation, this time named Bruce. He’s a self-centered Buffalo, New York tv reporter with a perfect girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston, who mostly looks like she’s acting in another movie entirely, not a bad survival strategy) and a knack for “human interest” stories. He’s introduced on the job, interviewing a couple of bakers who’ve made 10-foot wide chocolate chip cookie. As the piece goes increasingly wrong, Bruce is increasingly impatient. His career is slumping, especially compared to his rival, Evan (Steve Carell, who survives the many indignities heaped upon him), recently tapped for anchor, over Bruce.
Frustrated, Bruce takes it out on the infinitely patient, wholly gorgeous and generous Grace, who runs a day care center and wants nothing more than a proposal of marriage from her selfish boyfriend. Her happily married and maternal sister (Lisa Ann Walter) tells Grace she’s wasting her time with Bruce, but she hangs on, believing in him, knowing he can be a nice person if only he puts his mind to it. But even as she encourages him to see their life together as something to value, he can’t. “God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass and I’m the ant,” he fumes. “He could fix my life in five minutes if He wanted to.”
As he explains to Grace and his boss Jack (Philip Baker Hall), Bruce is most upset that people expect and want him to be funny. Ouch. The last time Carrey grappled with this problem, he played a sap who thought he was a hero in the treacly The Majestic, leading to moral uplift for everyone. This time, he meets God (Morgan Freeman), who’s so willing to teach Bruce a lesson that he gives him godly powers.
This leads to a series of spastic body antics, schmaltzy revelations, a pile-on of cute tunes (“The Power,” “If I Ruled the World,” “God Gave Me Everything”), and lots of self-love. Not one to squander such effects on people in actual need, Bruce sets to parting his tomato soup (at a diner where the superb Sally Kirkland is wasting her time as the waitress), visiting mega-sex on Grace, and punishing those who had the nerve to pick on him, pre-powered—namely, Evan and a gang of Latino thugs who couldn’t be more nightmarishly stereotypical if they tried. He’s Bad Hank from Me, Myself & Irene (2000), but with less focus.
This lack of focus stems from the script (one of those multi-author jobs, by Steven Loren, Mark O’Keefe, and Steve Oederkirk), which is one idea stretched thin, into unimaginative episodes (see, for instance, the literalization of a monkey emerging from someone’s butt). The plot resolves—as it must—into Bruce surrendering himself to God’s will. (If, for the Farrelly brothers, nothing is scared, for Shadyac, some things seem to be.) This makes the film oddly conservative in its conclusions, as if proclaiming basic truths: God is good. God helped Gandhi. And Jim Carrey, if not God, is put on this earth to be funny. If only he would.