The allure of the film, nearly lost among Carrey’s many sight gags and facial contortions, is that it is a take on Frank Capra’s much-loved 1946 classic “It’s A Wonderful Life”. We are helped to this connection by a glimpse of a scene from that film, where George Bailey offers to lasso the moon for his girl Mary.
Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a TV news reporter whose ambition is to read hard news from the studio rather than report soft stories from chocolate chip cookie factories. The big promotion seems all lined up, but God must be in a sadistic mood, because Bruce’s arch rival, he of plastic hair and shiny suit, gets the job instead.
Bruce hears of this just as he is about to deliver a live report. In a fluent, sarcastic fury, he gets as even as he can, even using the unthinkable “F” word, and is fired. The tirade continues at home with his girlfriend Grace, played by Jennifer Aniston. As with other Hollywood redemption films such as Bill Murray‘s “Groundhog Day” and “Scrooged”, the real tragedy is internal: a loss of faith in life and a lack of compassion for others. Our anti-hero feels that he is fired not for his tirade, but because God is cruel. He rants at God for this, demanding an explanation.
Enter God, who is Freeman resplendent in a white suit, radiating an otherworldly calm and an earthly humour. This particular lost soul needs a bit of fine tuning, the Almighty feels, and tells Bruce he may run things himself for a while. God needs some time off, which he’s taken before (“Remember the Dark Ages?”). And if things are so simple, Bruce ought to be able to handle it for a while.
But Bruce doesn’t handle it; he misses the point altogether. Instead of using his powers to help others, as God points out in a later meeting, Bruce has only helped himself, teaching his dog to use the toilet, parting red soup in a bowl and creating new clothes and a Saleen S7 to drive. He also takes hilariously mean pot shots at his enemies, moving his career and his ego forward while neglecting and losing his girlfriend.
Things spiral ever downward for the prodigal son till God snatches him away again for a clarifying chat. Unsure he will be returned to his life, Bruce realises he may not have a chance to right things. But our original Creator, Frank Capra, wins the day.
What slightly sinks “Bruce Almighty” is that it was created from the southern California studio movie vantage point, a cultural and emotional vacuum where citizens are consumers and spiritual growth a thing for trendy books and seminars. Unlike 1940’s America, the film’s intended audience has no memory of the Great Depression. Of course there are millions in America now who daily fear homelessness, hunger and unemployment, whose children have no health insurance. But the film ignores that particular reality. The soul it wishes to save belongs to a spoiled and self-centred child-man, troubled but lovable.
As the old saying goes, all you need is to be genuine, if you can fake that, you got it made. But faking genuine character growth is not among Carrey’s strengths, and Bruce’s redemption, made possible by his love of Grace, is desirable but not quite believable. We don’t worry about a man who already has a television career, a beautiful girlfriend and no kids. The film provides plenty of funny moments, but a man worth saving? Only God would think so.
Maybe if studio films like “Bruce Almighty” stepped out of the product placement, cookie cutter mold, out of the realm of the upper middle income, away from the standard images of the miniscule leading lady with the perfectly tousled hair, the light yellow apartment, the cute dog learning new tricks. If they let Bruce be a decent guy like Capra’s George Bailey, who moves into a broken down house with a young wife, builds a good life on little money, loses it all one day, and then against all odds, gets his life back. If we were to see that kind of film being made again, now that would be a miracle.