Eric D. Snider

Bruce Almighty

One of the things the title character learns in "Bruce Almighty" is voiced by God himself: "You have a gift for bringing joy and laughter to the world," he says, in the folksy voice of Morgan Freeman. With any luck, Jim Carrey, who plays Bruce, has learned the same lesson. His more serious efforts in films like "The Truman Show" and "The Majestic" have been fine, but comedy -- finely tuned, well-crafted comedy as in "Liar Liar" and TV's "In Living Color" -- are where his greatest assets lie.

Sure, his spastic slapstick is often overused, and his penchant for forcing catchphrases on the world is irritating (this time it's a low-voiced "Gooood" and a protracted "Be-ee-ay-utiful" that frat boys will be repeating for weeks). But give him solid material and he's gold.

He is gold for much of "Bruce Almighty," a smart, snappy comedy that gives him plenty of room to be both physically and verbally funny, and that also allows him some brief but effective serious time. In fact, the genuinely touching resolution is as nice as anything in those "serious" Carrey movies -- an indication that the best way to be sincere is to not try so darn hard.

Carrey's Bruce Nolan is a Buffalo, N.Y., news reporter frustrated at having to do fluffy human interest stories, and disappointed at the mediocrity of his life. He is non-committal to his long-time girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston), who winces at his frequent railings against God, whom he blames for his misfortunes. When he is passed up for an anchor position in favor of stuffy Evan Baxter (the hilarious Steven Carell, from "The Daily Show"), he has an on-air meltdown -- one of the film's funniest scenes -- and his anger toward God reaches its zenith.

Before he knows it, he is summoned to the Almighty's white, sterile headquarters to account for himself. God (Morgan Freeman) -- who calls Bruce "son" in a casual, earnest way -- tells Bruce if thinks he can do a better job overseeing the world, then go for it. He endows him with all of his powers, giving only the stipulations that he may not tell anyone he's God now, and he cannot interfere with people's free will.

He does some magic tricks, of course, and embarks on acts of petty revenge the way any newly powerful man would do. Then he does something surprising: Rather than using his powers to make himself a billionaire or to create a life of luxury, he uses them merely to get his job back.

That's one of several indications the film gives that, for all its joking AROUND the subject of faith, it does not joke ABOUT it. The screenplay, by TV writers and Carrey cohorts Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe and Steve Oedekerk, is not blasphemous; in fact, its final destination is to be rather sweet, even faith-affirming, in its raucous, rowdy way.

This is the best blend of Jim Carrey. He is past the juvenile cavorting of "Ace Ventura" (which, like "Liar, Liar" and "Bruce Almighty," was directed by Tom Shadyac), and seems to have finished his phase of begging for an Oscar nomination. He is not above a bit of potty humor, but he knows not to focus on it. Now he's free to be what God intended: funny.

Grade: B+

Rated PG-13, scattered profanity (including one F-bomb), some vulgar humor, some brief somewhat strong sexuality

1 hr., 40 min.

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