Dir: Tom Shadyac. US. 2007. 96mins.
Borrowing liberally from Field Of Dreams in addition to its previous swipes from Oh, God!, Evan Almighty is an ungainly melding of religious paean, big-budget studio comedy, and summer-blockbuster spectacle. Taking over for Bruce Almighty star Jim Carrey, Steve Carell proves to be a difficult fit for this sequel's broad slapstick and feel-good family niceties.
Without megastar Carrey's involvement, Universal will be tempering expectations since it's unlikely Evan Almighty can match Bruce Almighty's unholy 2003 grosses of $485m worldwide, which was divided almost exactly evenly between domestic and foreign territories. Still, Carell has demonstrated his burgeoning box-office appeal with last year's Over The Hedge ($155m in the States) and 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin ($109m).
Director Tom Shadyac has enjoyed success with family comedies featuring established big names - including The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty - but it will be interesting to see how his new movie will perform with a relative up-and-comer. Helping the film's cause, Knocked Up will be Evan Almighty's only direct comedy competition in the marketplace.
Evan Almighty will test Carell's overseas visibility as the film expands into other countries through the summer. The 40-Year-Old Virgin made approximately $68m internationally, but he is not as well known abroad as he in the US, thanks to his prominent role on the critically-acclaimed American version of The Office. After its presumptively healthy theatrical run ends, Evan Almighty seems preordained to enjoy robust ancillary grosses as well.
Evan (Carell), a supporting character from Bruce Almighty, has just been elected to Congress, prompting him to move his wife Joan (Graham) and their three children to Washington. But his campaign promise to 'change the world' loses its metaphorical meaning when God (Freeman) appears to him with instructions to build an ark in preparation for a flood. Evan's disbelief subsides once two of every animal start arriving and his appearance changes until he looks like a modern-day Noah.
As he did with The Nutty Professor and Liar Liar, director Tom Shadyac takes Evan Almighty's easily marketable comic hook and delivers a broad, inoffensive entertainment, complete with a heartfelt message about the importance of family. But where his earlier comedies had sufficient charm and manic energy, Evan Almighty feels aggressively, generically crowd-pleasing, throwing in platitudes about environmental responsibility and the need for faith without much amusing content to go with it.
Part of the problem stems from Carell's uninspired performance. Much of the character's humour comes from moments of slapstick and pratfalls, which are not his comedic specialties. Whether on The Office or in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell has played characters who represent a slightly skewed take on the typical middle-class white male, hinting at their feverish insecurities while staying grounded in reality.
But since there's nothing subversively off-kilter about Evan, Carell has little to play with, and he feels too reserved for the film's cartoonish physical comedy. The role seems better suited to the hyperactive style of the comedians Shadyac has worked with in the past like Carrey or Robin Williams.
Not surprisingly, Carell does much better with Evan's heartfelt moments in the second half, advocating God's love and bonding with his family, although here again his slightly unhinged persona doesn't quite mesh with Evan's sweet-natured family man.
Taking a page from Field Of Dreams, Evan's seemingly preposterous belief that he is to build an ark is met with understandable derision from those around him. Both films preach the necessity of following your heart, but the external obstacles placed in Evan's way are particularly convoluted, diminishing that message.
Even though Steve Oedekerk's script has established, among many other bits of evidence, that Evan's swiftly growing hair and beard are the result of God transforming him into the new Noah, Joan and his fellow Congressmen unreasonably question his sanity.
If Evan simply showed them what the audience already knows - whenever he tries to shave, the facial hair grows back immediately - the film would become more interesting as people begin to cope with the fact that a potentially deadly flood is coming. Instead, Shadyac and Oedekerk eschew story logic to tell a simpleminded tale about belief that seems mostly unbelievable.
Beyond Carell, the other performances are competent if unmemorable. Lauren Graham brings little energy to her standard wife role, and Freeman plays God with his typical gravitas and grace, nicely underplaying the one well-written scene he's been given. The film is studded with strong comedic actors, such as John Goodman and John Michael Higgins, whose characters aren't fleshed-out enough to deserve performers of their calibre.
While Evan Almighty may just be a harmless summer comedy, the third act's big special effect - the inevitable flood promised in the film's trailers - can't help but be slightly (and probably unintentionally) upsetting for some. Throughout the film, God drops coy hints about when and why the flood will occur, obliquely alluding to the Great Flood in the Bible that wiped out humanity.
Though this ongoing doubt about what will happen is played for laughs and mawkish sentimentality, once the flood does come, the striking images of ruined dams, destroyed property, and frightened bystanders unavoidably trigger uncomfortable memories of the deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the tsunamis that ravaged south-east Asia at the end of 2004.
Evan Almighty may have a happy ending, but the film's use of dangerous floods as a humorous plot point seems insensitive. Consequently, this bland comedy's final moments leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
Shady Acres Entertainment
Universal Pictures International
Neal H. Moritz
From a story by Steve Oedekerk and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow, based on characters created by Steve Koren & Mark O'Keefe
John Michael Higgins