What if an average Joe, thinking he had what it takes to run the world, assumed God’s powers for a few days?
Hollywood calls that sort of “what if” a high concept, an idea that is instantly memorable and instantly sells. The industry has been banking on high-concept movies for several decades now, thinking that such premises are attractive enough—and marketable enough—to pull huge audiences with snappy posters and jazzy previews.
These days, Jim Carrey is the go-to guy for high-concept movies. His resume, already riddled with them, just got another hit: “Bruce Almighty,” in which he becomes omnipotent for a while.
Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a fluff reporter for a TV station in Buffalo. But he’s grown tired of wacky field assignments and thinks his destiny lies in the anchor’s chair. Exercising his gift—making people laugh and feel good—isn’t enough for him.
Grace (Jennifer Aniston), his live-in girlfriend, gives him prayer beads, but he doesn’t put much stock in them. He’s cynical, as evidenced by the fact that when Grace gives blood, he declines to join her, saying blood donations don’t really do any good.
Bruce’s big break at work—a live broadcast during sweeps week—turns out to be an occasion for Bruce to have an on-air meltdown, which costs him his job. Adding insult to injury, Bruce gets beaten up while helping a homeless man.
Bruce feels like a victim, and he blames God for his lot in life. He screams at his maker, describing God as a mean kid on an anthill with a magnifying glass. He reminds God that God has the power to make everything all right, but God chooses not to.
When Bruce is at his lowest, he prays for a miracle. And he gets it—a message, from God, on his beeper.
Bruce meets God (Morgan Freeman) in a warehouse, where God tells Bruce, who thinks being God is easy, to take the reins for a while.
God gives only two rules: Bruce can’t tell anyone he’s God, and he can’t mess with free will.
Here’s where the high concept really kicks into high gear. Bruce is now God, and he can do anything he wants—except break the two rules.
Bruce is of course tempted to use his powers for personal gain and satisfaction, and from such temptation comes much of the dramatic action and comedy.
In this way, “Bruce Almighty” has the ring of the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day.” In that movie, Bill Murray’s character (also a reporter) is given a unique gift—which he first spends on himself, only to realize it must be spent on other people.
That age-old truth is now being packaged in a Jim Carrey movie, which comes complete with product placement for Juan Valdez coffee and hilarious outtakes during the closing credits.
“Bruce Almighty” actually flits from its high concept, with doses of literal bathroom humor, to heavy concept, with discussions of free will.
When Bruce missteps in his relationship with Grace, he confronts God, wanting to know how to make someone love him without affecting free will. God replies that you can’t. There aren’t easy fixes—a strategy that Bruce must learn does not work.
For example, when Bruce plays God and his head fills with prayers that must be answered, he decides he can’t handle the workload and simply answers “yes” to all of the requests—including pleas for picking the winning Powerball numbers.
“There! Everybody’s happy,” he says.
But the easy way out causes even more problems. And Bruce needs a miracle.
“You want to see miracle?” God asks Bruce. “Be the miracle.” Thus emerges the message of the movie: Take care of each other. Do the hard work. Realize that God’s love is manifested through each of us and how we act toward each other.
So Bruce must learn that even the “simple things”—like giving blood—matter. And learn he will.
“Bruce Almighty” is a high-concept movie using free will as a story point—not a theological exploration of free will that happens to be a movie.
Jim Carrey fans won’t be disappointed. The actor is in fine form under the direction of friend and frequent collaborator Tom Shadyac. The movie will elicit some genuine laughs, even as it plays some sentimental notes.
Some viewers may find the premise sacrilegious, but those who don’t will think a little and laugh a lot.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Visit the movie’s official Web site.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, sexual content and some crude humor
Director: Tom Shadyac
Writers: Steve Koren, Mark O’Keefe and Steve Oedekerk
Cast: Bruce Nolan: Jim Carrey; Grace: Jennifer Aniston; God: Morgan Freeman.