If you haven’t seen Bruce Almighty recently, since Steve Carell rose to leading-man prominence with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you might not realize that there was an Evan in the earlier film, or that he was played by Carell. You probably remember his big scene, though: He was Jim Carrey’s big rival, the smug news anchor on whom Bruce Almighty did a Tower of Babel number during a broadcast, leaving him spouting gibberish in front of the cameras.
It was probably the funniest moment in the film — and it was Carell’s scene, not Carrey’s. With Carell’s star rising, there’s a certain logic in turning to supporting character Evan Baxter for the sequel, rather than trying to eke another story out of Carrey’s Bruce Nolan.
The key point of contact between the two films, though, is not Evan. For the story’s purposes, he might as well be a brand-new character (and probably was in early drafts, before Carell was cast). Evan isn’t even a news anchor any more, but a freshman congressman. There’s a perfunctory scene connecting his old life to his new life.
What secures Evan Almighty’s sequel status is Morgan Freeman as God — that, and the fuzzy pop spirituality that crops up in director Tom Shadyac’s films (see Dragonfly for another example).
Even the premise is so different that the title, Evan Almighty, is a marketing-ploy misnomer. The new film isn’t about God giving omnipotent power to another news anchor (actually, God didn’t do that in the original, either, but that’s another review). This time around, God has a mission for the protagonist.
“Do I know you?” Evan asks uncertainly when he discovers an elderly black stranger sitting cross-legged on a load of gopher wood in Evan’s front yard.
God smiles knowingly. “Oh, not as well as I’d like,” he answers.
That’s true. We’ve seen that Evan isn’t much for religion — though, prompted by his wife Joan (Lauren Graham), he does offer an awkward prayer on the eve of their new life outside Washington, D.C. “Thank you for — everything,” he mumbles, adding sheepishly, “Love the house. Well, I picked it out, but … You made matter and everything.”
What gets God’s attention, though, is Evan’s yen to make a difference — to “change the world,” as his campaign slogan goes. That’s why God has that gopher wood delivered to Evan’s house. Yep, God wants Evan to build an ark. Perhaps the Almighty was impressed by Evan’s performance in the televised Tower-of-Babel incident and decided to continue the primeval-history theme in a backwards direction, in which case we should look for an apple and a serpent in the third film, unless Evan’s brother kills him first.
An ark? “That’s flood territory!” Evan protests incredulously. “You wouldn’t do that again, would you?”
“Whatever I do,” God answers equably, “I do because I love you.”
In a nice touch, the film follows up on this line by suggesting that being loved by God may not always be sunshine and roses. At a low point in the story, Evan recalls God’s words: “I know, whatever you do, you do because you love me, right?” At that moment a water sprinkler happens to go off, hitting Evan squarely in the face. “Do me a favor,” Evan mutters. “Love me less.”
Tough love is one thing; punishment for sins is something else. As in the first film, in which Bruce’s cohabitation with his girlfriend somehow never came up between him and God, the topic of sin is pretty much absent from Evan Almighty. Of course Evan is a family man, and Evan is a family film (Bruce was rated PG-13; Evan is PG), so there isn’t the same problem this time around, but God does have a speech, typical of the franchise’s spirituality, in which he brushes aside the theme of judgment in the story of Noah’s ark.
Is there a flood in Evan Almighty? Suffice to say, the Genesis 9 covenant promise, sealed with the rainbow, never again to destroy the earth in a flood is in no jeopardy in this film, but at the same time Evan’s ark is not for nothing. The animals’ “two-by-two” bit, though, makes no dramatic sense — no species are ever threatened with extinction — except as a bit of divine showmanship and symbolism, presumably also how Evan’s physical transformation is intended.
Rather than judgment or salvation, Evan Almighty offers an inoffensive message of conservationism and stewardship, leavened by bestiary slapstick. Harmless, diverting, very mildly uplifting, Evan Almighty offers passable family entertainment meant to appeal equally to Bible-believing conservatives and left-leaning environmentalists.
Compared to Bruce Almighty, Shadyac’s pop spirituality comes off a bit better in Evan, I guess. Certainly there’s nothing here as problematic as the earlier film’s “be the miracle” pap, in which God suggested that people need to stop “looking up” and look to themselves instead.
Where Bruce intriguingly turned on Bruce surrendering to God’s will and coming to a real understanding of selfless love, Evan addresses obedience to God’s calling whatever the consequences, even if your family is against you. At the same time, it emphasizes family solidarity with a too-familiar tale of a workaholic dad and his long-suffering family.
Shadyac was raised Catholic, and has suggested that his spiritual milieu is progressive and edgy (he has mentioned attending a “very open” Catholic parish, one so far beyond “the spirit of Vatican II” that he describes it as “Vatican IX”). Yet his films are consistently bland, generic and unchallenging — an interesting if unintentional commentary on “progressive” religion, perhaps, which doesn’t really have a whole lot to say.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.