by Robert Cornuke
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"Evan Almighty," a clever play on the expression "heaven almighty," (which I didn't get at first, and I pray I'm not alone) is an almost "stealth" sequel to "Oh, God" and to its makeover as a vehicle for Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman, "Bruce Almighty." Thank the gods of Hollywood for the latter's repeat performance in this new celestially inspired romp with an everyman.
Well, perhaps not everyman, since unsuspecting news anchor Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell) has just won a congressional seat running on a ticket of "Change the World." Obviously, this gave the guy above the clouds (Freeman) an idea, especially when it comes in the form of a nighttime prayer for help with his congressional endeavors.
Mr. G doesn't just appear before Evan to give him his new assignment. Nooo, he allows the freshman to enjoy the new trappings of Washington power, where he, his chief of staff Marty (John Michael Higgins) and executive secretary Rita (Wanda Sykes) enjoy their fine, new office suite. It doesn't occur to the freshman that his being placed in such a cushy spot by Congressional leader Long (John Goodman) might carry with it an obligation or two. Yes, Long has some bills to pass and he needs every vote of support he can wrangle or intimidate. Fairly or not, he's a man who knows a thing or two about putting the screws to an obligated newbie.
Evan's greater destiny begins with his alarm clock going off at 6:14 rather than at the 7 AM he set it for. Then, the arrival on the doorstep of his sparkling new mansion of a large package he didn't order, containing a set of tools made of wood, dating back to the Mesopotamians, Annoyed at first but then pissed when a truckload of lumber is offloaded onto his property, the answer to who is taking such liberties with him arrives in the form of a white-clad man identifying himself as the guy in the bible, God. And he's here to see to it that Evan starts quickly to build him an arc because lots of animal pairs are depending on him, and they're showing up in great number.
As this phenomenon and that of personal physical changes he can't control convinces him that he's dealing with a power who is what he says he is, the strain on his marriage with Joan (Lauren Graham) increases, as does his relationship with his three sons (exactly the gender and number of Noah's family). The antics that his new appearances cause back in the hallowed halls of government become slapsticky comic invention that strains comfort. As the ark takes shape, local government arises to the challenge of broken building codes, and Evan is religiously convinced that it all has a reason and a purpose.
Carrell's acting talent is on display in this celestial framework, which writers Steve Oedekerk, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow reprise from the former materializations of the big guy. Tom Shadyac also returns from "Bruce" to direct and produce. Carrell's comedy technique is far less physical than his precessor Jim Carrey's but his strength is fine-tuned control of unquestionable comedic know-how but that doesn't elevate this enough to call it inspirational.
Graham's sweet wifely role is third banana class within the high concept of an Ark-in-Washington frolic, but her manner of delivering a line is both subtle and fascinating. This is a personality that breathes life into a part while dutifully maintaining its modest function in a grand scheme.
Standout for comedic timing is the one to whom so much of the juicy one-liners couldn't help but going, if not created for: Wanda Sykes, as Evan's acerbic well-meaning right hand person whose firm loyalty and continual frustration provides a bountiful treasury of quick one-liners. The material they gave her may be somewhat overboiled, but this is one funny lady.
When thinking of Freeman in terms of performance and presence, you want to say "of course." One of the most reliable and bullet-proof talents in the firmament, he makes suspension of disbelief a privileged experience.
Visually, the ark itself makes a stunning image and, when it moves on the waters for which it was designed, we have CGI effects put to a use never seen before. The Congressional Hill itself is seen in a new light. Doing his considerable part in the visualization of it is cinematographer Ian Baker, with much credit going as well to the production designer, art director and, of course the CGI team for their splendid animals.
In a canny play on themes exciting interest these days, one has to admit the remunerative cleverness of harnessing the bible to expose congressional corruption and an emerging funnyman to make it entertaining (if a bit arduously so). The divinity part trumps the political and comedic in service to the proven draw of the "Narnia" crowd who would be inclined to forgive -- if not disregard -- the weaker components. After all, with God and Noah providing the animated sermon, the faithful fan base is bound to flock to the theatre pews. The studio (Universal), in its finite wisdom, has no reason to fear disrespectful numbers.
~~ Jules Brenner