In Evan Almighty, the sequel to the 2003 Jim Carrey vehicle Bruce Almighty, slapstick humor and the Bible story of Noah and the Ark form a holy but unfunny alliance.
Don't ask, "What would Jesus do?" The better question is "What would Cecil do?" Although he specialized in Hollywood bible epics, not comedies, not even the populist showman Cecil B. DeMille would have stooped to mix religion and entertainment in such a childish, anodyne manner.
Contrary to its marketing strategy, Evan Almighty argues for the separation of church and Hollywood. Being obsessively literal is one thing it shares with lots of organized religion these days. To wit, "ark" becomes an acronym for the acts of random kindness God (Morgan Freeman) encourages. Forget saving souls (or, considering the movie's environmental dogma, whales); it's time to save comedy.
Theologians can weigh in on Evan Almighty's merit as a religious tract for the masses. From the vantage point of mainstream cinema, its only claim to fame will be that it contains more bird doo than any movie ever made.
For what it's worth, the religiosity strikes this layperson as watery enough to be called ecumenical in a pejoratively bland sense of the term. The message is laudable but hard to distinguish from run-of-the-mill Hollywood pictures aimed at families. God has one substantive speech about prayer. When people ask Him for courage or patience, for example, He doesn't send them courage or patience, He provides the opportunity to exemplify those virtues.
In the case of Bruce's newscaster colleague Evan Baxter (Steve Carell), God affords the chance to embody a bundle of qualities best summarized as combining the qualities of St. Francis and Noah. And He has to badger Evan before he fully embraces the opportunity to build an ark, out-demagogue land-grabbing Washington D.C. legislators, and save the animals from the evils of suburban sprawl.
When the picture opens, Evan has somehow been elected to the U.S. Congress from Buffalo. He buys a Hummer and drives with his wife and three sons to Virginia. On the first night in their brand new suburban abode, Evan asks God to help him "change the world."
Up on Capitol Hill, the junior Congressman's prayer is apparently answered. He's given a plum office by a senior legislator (John Goodman) and asked to co-sponsor a bill permitting the development of national parkland. Meanwhile, a crate of tools arrives on his doorstep and references to Chapter 6, Verse 14 of the Book of Genesis, along with God himself, start popping up everywhere. It doesn't take omniscience to see where things are headed. In the guise of a hirsute prophet, Evan will expose rapacious developers and their corrupt, Republican enablers.
Although the title is a misnomer and Evan was never normal to begin with -- so his messianic mien and odd behavior aren't enough of character departure -- the concept has potential. Tom Shadyac, who directed Bruce Almighty and screenwriter Steve Oedekerk, who co-wrote that flick, can't convert it into elevating entertainment however.
Neither the jokes nor the special effects seem heaven-sent. The humor consists of pratfalls, cartoonish crotch attacks and the aforementioned bird droppings -- all designed to tickle kids. Wanda Sykes has a bunch of one-liners as Evan's aide. Only a few make landfall. As for Carell, you have to conclude he needs a Judd Apatow, the creator of his surprise hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or the droll set-up of The Office to exude leading-clown appeal.
The movie's obscenely large budget is ironic given Evan Almighty also teaches that it's the little things that count. The effects, mostly involving animals and the deluge of course, don't seem worth hundreds of millions, especially accompanied by cheesy celestial music.
Despite its many man-made flaws, Evan Almighty probably won't require a miracle to become a box-office juggernaut. The burning question will then become: How to part the Potomac on the inevitable Universal Studios ride?
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG" for mild humor and some peril.)