[Our Sunday Visitor, May 27, 2003]
People may disagree over whether a glass is half empty or half full, but both sides have to admit that it’s about half what it could be. "Bruce Almighty" is about half of "It’s a Wonderful Life," the 1939 classic that it admires so much. On the plus side, it’s got Jim Carrey in fine form, crackling with better-than-average lines and excellent timing. I’m not a fan of Scary Carrey, although some viewers prefer the hypermanic vicious Jim of earlier films. This more human version suits me fine, and as a bonus, he’s looking more handsome. Age is bringing out a stronger jawline, and he sometimes resembles Cary Elwes, the handsome prince of "The Princess Bride" (and well-meaning softy of Carrey’s 1997 "Liar Liar").
So as a comedy "Bruce" has a number of good things going for it. Jennifer Aniston plays Bruce’s live-in, Grace, and her naturalness and warmth further ground the film. Morgan Freeman plays God, and while he’s not awe-inspiring, he is a good Daddy, compassionate yet just. If you can get past some gross-out moments and a scattering of naughty words, it’s an enjoyable night at the movies.
But "Bruce Almighty" wants to be more than that. Director Tom Shadyac is Roman Catholic, and has constructed the film to lead audiences through the initial steps of a prayerful relationship with God. Bruce Nolan is a callous, egocentric local TV reporter who resents his "mediocre" life; in a sharp early scene, he rages at being stuck behind a traffic accident while a bloodied figure on a gurney is wheeled past his window. When he hurls a challenge at God, the Deity takes him up on it.
Bruce is given godlike powers for a short period of time, restricted to a corner of Buffalo, NY. Naturally he first uses these powers in selfish ways, but then realizes he has to deal with a flood of incoming (by email) prayer requests. He tries answering "Yes" to all of them, but learns another lesson when chaos results. "Since when does anybody have a clue about what they want?" God asks him.
When Bruce begins to read Grace’s prayers for him-her praying is presented respectfully, and the content of those prayers models compassion and maturity-he takes another step. Next, he must understand the mystery of free will, and how even God cannot compel his creatures to love him. After some trials he winds up a better person, at peace with his vocation and asking Grace to marry him.
If you want a film that uses humor and top-notch performers to bring a general audience along the first steps to prayer, this is it. If you’re looking for the Summa Theologica, look elsewhere. There is no hint of Christ or Church in this film, of course, but there is not even an understanding of prayer as a relationship with God. Instead, all prayer is petitionary-asking for stuff. The big message seems to be that we should stop asking God to do things, and pitch in and do them ourselves. What begins as a brisk comedy winds up as earnest and sentimental as "Pay It Forward."
In trying to combine quality comedy with a religious message the film is capable of missing both audiences. Christians can be put off by the gross stuff and shallowness of the theology; sophisticated nonbelievers can find Bruce’s evolution into a good guy saccharine, and misunderstand what theology there is. But there is a middle core of Americans who like the idea of prayer, but don’t know how to do it, and "Bruce Almighty" could help them get started. The Holy Spirit is able to take it from there. Half empty or half full? I guess I’m glad there’s a glass at all.