Evan Almighty

With “Evan Almighty,” Steve Carell officially joins the ranks of Comic Actors Who Can Save Anything. This is not a particularly well-thought-out movie, nor a cleverly written one, nor will it be remembered five years from now for anything other than its extravagant budget (reportedly $200 million, the most ever spent on a comedy). Yet with Carell in the lead, it sails along smoothly and merrily, with enough laughs and feel-good messages to help it overcome its inherent weaknesses.

It’s a sequel to 2003’s “Bruce Almighty,” pretty much in name only, though director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekerk, both Jim Carrey veterans, have returned. The tone is completely different, so fans of the first film should be aware that this is an entirely different animal. “Bruce” was raucous and rowdy and starred monkeyboy Jim Carrey; “Evan” is genial and PG-rated and stars Carell, who’s as famous for underplayed subtlety as Carrey is for over-the-top clowning.

Carell plays Evan Baxter, a minor (but memorable) newsman character in “Bruce Almighty” who has now just been elected to Congress on his optimistic “Change the world” campaign platform. He and his family — wife Joan (Lauren Graham) and three sons of varying ages — move to suburban Virginia, and Evan goes to work as a junior congressman.

The speed with which Evan begins to neglect his family in favor of his work is impressive, even compared to other movies in which Dad works too much and must learn What’s Really Important. Honestly, it’s a matter of seconds. In the field of Forgetting Your Priorities and Becoming a Workaholic, this is probably a new speed record.

Then he starts getting little messages from God. The Bible reference “Gen. 6:14” keeps turning up, and strange woodworking tools and pallets of lumber are delivered to the house. Pairs of animals start to follow Evan everywhere he goes. Then God (Morgan Freeman) delivers the news firsthand: Evan is to build an ark, because there is going to be a flood. God is cagey about the details, as is His wont, but that’s the gist of it.

Duly convinced that he’s not hallucinating and that ark-building is indeed his calling, Evan gets to work. God makes things a bit harder on him by making his hair and beard grow wildly and requiring him to wear an Old Testament-style robe, and the film never really explains why, other than that it’s kinda funny. The movie also fails to indicate why it’s necessary to put all the animals on the ark, though I suspect it’s for the same reason. After all, if there were no animals, there could be no jokes about their poop! (That the film limits itself to only a dozen or so such references is indicative of the filmmakers’ extraordinary restraint.)

You get the feeling the film has been watered down in an effort to market it as an inoffensive Judeo-Christian religious comedy, and it’s definitely lost a lot of the bite that “Bruce Almighty” had. Yet it’s undeniably good-natured with its family-togetherness message — what better way to build an ark than to get the kids to help out? — and the lessons learned are not too heavy-handed.

Furthermore, there is Steve Carell. To his everlasting credit, no matter how outrageous a situation becomes, he always refuses to overplay it. He is a master of comic timing and nuance, able to cap off a scene with a reaction that’s perfectly calibrated to be funny without being too “big.” Considering that’s the exact opposite of Jim Carrey’s technique, it’s amazing that these two films have anything to do with each other at all.

Carell is aided by a fine support staff, including Wanda Sykes, Jonah Hill, and John Michael Higgins as congressional aides, and John Goodman as a good ol’ boy fellow representative. Molly Shannon, Ed Helms, and Jon Stewart pop up to steal a few laughs here and there, too, a reminder that no matter how funny you are, you gotta have your supporting players.

We can, and probably should, criticize the film’s laziness in some areas. For example, it’s unnecessary and predictable to make Evan a dog-hater in the beginning (The guy who hates animals is going to become Noah! Ho ho!), and a couple of Wanda Sykes’ jokes are about such ancient topics as fen-phen (taken off the market in 1997) and Whoopi Goldberg’s costume changes at the Oscars (which she last hosted in 2002). The story is, ultimately, rudimentary. But the performances by Carell and company are easy to like, easy to laugh at, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

B- (1 hr., 33 min.; PG, mild vulgarity.)