The Reeler


June 21, 2007

Evan Almighty

Quasi-religious comedy more marketing tool than movie

More a marketing tool than a movie, Evan Almighty attempts to court evangelicals, environmentalists and shots-to-the-groin enthusiasts in a schizophrenic comedy that should please none of them. After the success of The Passion of the Christ, it’s easy to imagine Universal execs scratching their heads in search of a religion-themed franchise: "Well, Bruce Almighty had God in it, right?” That 2003 hit used the divine as an excuse to give Jim Carrey something to bounce off of, but in this spin-off it‘s front-and-center.

Director Tom Shadyac and his long-time writing partner Steve Oedekerk take Evan Baxter, the uptight Buffalo newscaster from the original, and elect him to the House of Representatives. After an effective opening montage of Baxter’s conspicuous consumption (driving a Hummer, moving into a gated community), Morgan Freeman returns as his white-suited, merry prankster version of God and commands him to build an Ark. Steve Carell reprises his role as Baxter and plays him as the anxiety ridden, hot-headed nerd that’s becoming his stock-in-trade (there‘s even a 40-Year-Old Virgin Mary gag). Effectively gauging Carell’s talents, they avoid the supreme arrogance of Carrey’s deity and instead try to wring humor from his humiliation. He sprouts a Moses beard, is forced to wear ratty robes and is trailed by a CGI menagerie with the runs. Few of the gags hit their marks as squarely, but rather quickly bore with repetition (i.e. endless wooden beams to the crotch).

The film strains to balance humor with spirituality, which creates wild tonal shifts; Baxter earnestly tells a corrupt Congressman to repent, but seconds later screams impotently for rain. Perhaps if the film actually took religion seriously, this contrast wouldn’t be so jarring. Instead of being incorporated into daily life -- faith as an ingrained part of personality -- here it is disdainfully dropped in to serve the plot. Baxter reluctantly prays in the beginning (to cue Freeman), and then shows no other religious impulse until it’s needed for the emotional uplift of the ending. Shadyac and Oedekerk seem far more invested in the land-act bill Baxter is asked to pass, one that would annex National Parks acreage for evil corporate development, thereby assuaging the liberals who might wander in.

This film is clearly a marketable commodity rather than a work of art, and so it may be more apt to discuss how it is being sold. If Evan Almighty expects to make a profit against its estimated $175 million budget, it will have to draw heavily from the evangelical audience. To help it reach that audience, Universal hired Grace Hill Media, a PR firm that declares itself the “reigning market leader in reaching People of Faith,” having previously worked on The Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of the many results of its work is "Ark Almighty," a Web site built upon the film’s sentiment that random acts of kindness can change the world.

Or, in the site’s words: “ArkALMIGHTY is a good deeds program that matches up the needs in your congregation with the talents and skills of the members of your church.” It suggests specific good deeds, and sets up bulletin boards for congregations to share ideas. Ark Almighty is heavily promoted on religious sites (including Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and the teen group Battle Cry), but hopefully people of faith -- and prospective viewers of this film -- can still determine when they’re being had.

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