Evan Almighty

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This review was written for the theatrical release of "Evan Almighty." 

Situating the biblical story of Noah and the Ark in a Washington that closely resembles Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" makes for one determined stab at a populist comedy. In Hollywood's newfound desire to court Christian audiences, nothing apparently is too over the top.

This does mean that Tom Shadyac's "Evan Almighty" develops a split personality. What starts out as a politically themed comedy takes a sharp turn into, as the ad copy suggests, "a comedy of Biblical proportions."

With popular Steve Carell as the circus master of an impressive menagerie of God's creatures, the film should live up to its populist aspirations. The film appears primed to entertain a large congregation of family audiences with its mix of Old Testament magic and skewering of modern-day skepticism.

The film is a sequel to 2003's "Bruce Almighty" -- and then again it isn't. The original film was a Jim Carrey vehicle where he played a disgruntled Buffalo, N.Y., TV reporter who is given divine powers by God (Morgan Freeman in a bit of typecasting) to see if he can do a better job. The new film focuses on a supporting character from that film, Carrey's news rival, Evan Baxter, who was played by Carell before he became a star in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

So the new movie can't wait to get out of Buffalo. Seems Evan has run for Congress even while retaining his TV job. (How the hell did that work? Did he get to cover himself?) By the time you've gobbled down your third handful of popcorn, Evan, his wife, Joan (Lauren Graham), and three sons -- Dylan (Johnny Simmons), Jordan (Graham Phillips) and Ryan (Jimmy Bennett) -- are off to a brand-new Virginian suburb outside D.C., still largely in the building stage.

Written by Steve Oedekerk (from a story by Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow and himself), the film doesn't even bother to get any of the details of Capitol Hill right. A shifty-eyed senior congressman, played as if bloated on corruption and venality by John Goodman in one of his lesser performances, gets Evan an office grander than the Oval Office so he'll co-sponsor a land-grab bill. Neither the freshman congressman nor his staff smell a rat. Later, the congressman is seen commanding police and suspending fellow congressmen at will.

Nevermind. The show doesn't really begin until God (Freeman again) appears to Evan. He gently requests that Evan build an ark to prepare for a mighty flood. It takes longer than Bill Cosby's classic comedy routine about Noah for God to persuade Evan, and even then most of the persuading is done through a series of mammals and birds that follow Noah, two by two, everywhere.

When building gets under way -- on adjacent subdivision plots God has purchased for Evan along with a copy of "Ark Building for Dummies" -- Evan's family is convinced this is a midlife crisis gone far beyond the red Corvette stage. Meanwhile, his hair and beard grow overnight, and neither can be shaved off. Then God helpfully leaves a dusty old robe for Evan to use while working with the animals.

Much of the slapstick comedy involved in the building is feeble, and the film never does something unexpected once the wheels are set in motion. Shadyac and Oedekerk rely on the nonhuman supporting cast for their comic shock and awe. Composite shots of myriad animals and birds -- quite a few real and the others realistic CG critters -- fill the screen while TV reporters and neighbors gather to mock the modern-day Noah. The disappointment is that no one bothered to think through in contemporary comic terms what a repeat of Noah and the Ark would look like today.

Carell is getting quite good as these everyman characters but lacks the audacity of, say, a Carrey or a Robin Williams. He is making comedy out of dullness. Evan's family is too generic to do much more than blend into the scenery, where everyone can get upstaged by the animals.

With Evan's staff, things liven up. Wanda Sykes makes the most of the script's best wisecracks. John Michael Higgins is all unctuous anxiety as Evan's chief of staff. And Jonah Hill has moments as an intern who unaccountably morphs into his chief of intelligence.

Production values are outstanding as animal coordinator Mark Forbes, cinematographer Ian Baker, the visual effects unit and production designer Linda DeScenna put together the ark, animals and the biblical flood required. No "Ark Building for Dummies" needed here.        

EVAN ALMIGHTY
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment present in association with Relativity Media a Shady Acres/Barber-Birnbaum/Original Film production
Director: Tom Shadyac
Screenwriter: Steve Oedekerk
Story: Steve Oedekerk, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow
Based on characters created by: Steve Koren, Mark O'Keefe
Producers: Tom Shadyac, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Neal H. Moritz, Michael Bostick
Executive producers: Ilona Herzberg, Dave Phillips, Matt Luber, Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman
Director of photography: Ian Baker
Production designer: Linda DeScenna
Music: John Debney
Co-producers: Jonathan Watson, Amanda Morgan Palmer, Ori Marmur
Costume designer: Judy Ruskin Howell
Editor: Scott Hill
Cast:
Evan Baker: Steve Carell
God: Morgan Freeman
Joan Baxter: Lauren Graham
Dylan Baxter: Johnny Simmons
Jordan Baxter: Graham Phillips
Ryan Baxter: Jimmy Bennett
Congressman Long: John Goodman
Rita: Wanda Sykes
Marty: John Michael Higgins
MPAA rating: PG
Running time -- 78 minutes

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