Bruce Nolan wished he could change things. Now he can.
A huge box office hit in the summer of 2003, Bruce Almighty is an ambitious but uneven attempt at seriocomic territory that many venture towards but few actually succeed in conquering.
After raking in huge grosses, Universal has taken the step of bringing Bruce into your home. Is it divine entertainment or a holy hell?
Facts of the Case
Frustrated and dissatisfied with life, Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey, The Majestic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) is suddenly summoned to a meeting with God (Morgan Freeman, Levity, The Sum of All Fears). After a brief chat (and some impromptu challenges), God decides to grant a favor that all mortals at one point wish they could have: He gives Bruce the power.
Immediately, Bruce uses his new-gotten powers to make his life a definite improvement. But as a wise old man once said to his nephew, "With great power, comes great responsibility." Bruce discovers that being God is not what it's cracked up to be, especially when he alienates his faithful girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston, Friends, The Good Girl).
God only knows how much I was looking forward to seeing Bruce Almighty. Being a Jim Carrey fan, the trailers made this look like a return to form for him after the serious The Majestic. Being the film buff I am, I should have known better than to trust the trailers as a beacon of accuracy.
Yes, Bruce Almighty is a funny film. There are moments so hilarious that they can hold up to the best setpieces in Carrey's previous comedies. However, it's the film's dramatic left turn that managed to leave me lukewarm towards it. The screenplay credited to Steve Koren & Mark O'Keefe and Steve Oedekerk (whenever you see an ampersand plus the word "and," a warning sign should ring in your head; it's the telltale sign of a rewritten script). My guess is that the first version of the script was a more sober-minded approach, then Oedekerk was brought in to recast it as a typical Carrey vehicle. Why do I think this, you ask? It's the film's uneasy mix of comedy and sentiment. The sentiment is just piled on too strongly. In order for sentiment to succeed in comedy, it must develop naturally from the characters. When it is just piled on, as in Bruce Almighty, it feels forced and uncomfortable.
Just imagine how this material would have soared in the hands of Billy Wilder or Paul Mazursky. If you've read my reviews, you'll notice that this isn't the first time I have mentioned Wilder and Mazursky. Some will say it's unfair to compare today's product with their body of work, but hey, write your own review then. I'm making a point here. Both men had the unique gift to take seemingly impossible situations and make them work wonderfully on screen. They populated their films with living, breathing human characters that remain as fresh now as they were then. They worked with their actors to get the best (in some cases, career best) work out of them. Plus, both men were willing to take that extra step to lift their films out of the ordinary. A level of cynicism would have been added to give the satire more bite and lasting power. However, director Tom Shadyac, who is competent at best, is simply content to just play it out on his deceptively simple levels of broad comedy and syrupy sentiment. He doesn't want to take it to the next level—he is just happy to play it safe. The result is a film that could have been an extraordinary satire instead of merely a good film.
Overall, the acting is quite good. Jim Carrey is both a talented comedian and versatile actor, as he has proven time and time again. He is as funny as expected in his role of Bruce. But he also invests his performance with a great deal of humanity and feeling, much more than the screenplay gives him. Morgan Freeman lends dignity and stature to his role as the Lord; I wouldn't mind having this man as God and when you get a reaction like that, you know it's a real performance. Special mention must be paid to Steve Carell, a regular on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Cast as Carrey's rival, he manages to steal scenes from the human comic dynamo. That is no easy feat, and anyone who can do it must be a great comedic actor. The only disappointment is Jennifer Aniston, cast as Bruce's girlfriend. I know for a fact that she has real acting talent. Her so-so performance really isn't her fault. The screenplay doesn't give her enough to do and her role isn't written with the depth and detail that Wilder and Mazursky most certainly would have given her. Also (and I know I'm not the only one who feels this way), it seems to me that she spends so much of her energy trying hard not to be Rachel, that she doesn't leave much for the performance. That's what happened in The Good Girl. and it happens again here. What Aniston needed was a director who would work with her on pacing and help her reach the heights the role calls for. Unfortunately, Shadyac isn't the right director for that task, as Bruce Almighty proves.
Universal offers Bruce Almighty in separate full frame and widescreen editions. The widescreen disc is the one used for this review. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks good, but it isn't as sharp and crisp as one would expect from a film that was released a mere seven months ago. In fact, the image is far too soft for my taste. Colors look fine, but not as bright as they could be.
The audio is far better. If you have a player and equipment that can handle the DTS track, by all means, choose this option. The DTS track offers greater clarity and aural pleasure than even the best Dolby Digital Surround track can offer. There are moments that will have you leaping from your seat into a heaping mass on the floor. It's particularly ideal for those who own home theater setups.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are quite a few extras here, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. A commentary track by director Tom Shadyac starts things off. It's rather boring and mediocre, with the director too much in awe of his star. Shadyac is also a bit too satisfied to simply describe what is on screen. It's a disappointment coming after his earlier commentaries. The most annoying aspect is that you cannot use the Audio button on your remote to access the commentary; you have to select it from the menu.
A "making-of" featurette purports to get Inside the Creative Mind of Jim Carrey (to quote the keep case), but is nothing more than an excuse to show several minutes of outtakes coupled with more fawning from director Shadyac. You can skip this if you wish.
Next up is over half an hour of deleted scenes. Watching them makes you wonder why most of them were left on the cutting room floor. Reinstating the majority of this footage back into the picture could solve all of the flaws present in the final cut. Tom Shadyac's accompanying commentary doesn't give any real answers as to why this footage was cut (his comments tend to go along the line of "Look at this!"). My suspicion: either the studio demanded a short running time or they decided to sacrifice the picture just to have some swinging bonus material. Either way, it did more harm than good.
Select outtakes featuring Carrey mugging at the camera are funny, but eventually they wear out their welcome. A theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen finishes off the proceedings.
I still recommend (barely, that is) seeing Bruce Almighty. The moments that do work do so beautifully, and the performances by Carrey, Freeman, and Carell very nearly sell this material.
The $27.95 price tag is far too hefty for me to recommend this disc as a blind buy. Rent it first if you are interested in purchasing this disc. I found the film to be a disappointment compared to Carrey's earlier, better work. For less than half the price, you can own one of Carrey's best, Liar Liar, also a Universal release.
Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, and Steve Carell are all found not guilty, by virtue of making a game attempt to lend more weight to this lightweight script. I cannot find Jennifer Aniston guilty; it is not her fault her performance doesn't work. That guilt belongs to the screenwriters and director, all of whom I put on probation until they learn to make something less conventional and with more substance.
Universal is not guilty of a good DVD presentation and is urged to work on the few problem areas in the immediate future.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary By Director Tom Shadyac
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