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Bob Smithouser

Movie Review

Tired of chasing cornball human interest stories, Buffalo, N.Y., television reporter Bruce Nolan dreams of anchoring the evening news. Just when it seems he might get his big break, an ambitious rival beats him out. Bruce is incensed. He has an on-air meltdown and gets fired—the low point of a particularly bad day. Like many people who don’t understand God, Bruce rails against the Almighty, blaming Him for his troubles. He shouts, “The only one around here not doing his job is you!Answer me!” Which God does. In fact, the Lord goads Bruce into a personal meeting and invites the whiny mortal to spend one week in His heavenly shoes, sharing His powers and responsibilities. Two rules: Bruce can’t tell anyone about the deal, and he’s not able to affect people’s free will. At first, Bruce applies his new powers selfishly. He increases the bust size of his live-in girlfriend, Grace. He parts traffic. He teaches his dog to use the toilet. He humiliates his enemies. He even gets his job back and elevates his career to a new level. But with divinity comes duty, and playing God has unintended consequences, among them fallout in his relationship with Grace. In the end, Bruce gains a better understanding of God, others … and himself. [Spoiler Warning: Some plot turns revealed, especially in the area of spiritual content.]

positive elements: Bruce shows kindness to people and intervenes when he sees thugs harassing a homeless man. His longsuffering girlfriend, Grace, is a decent person (she donates blood and works at a day-care center) who reassures him that everything in life happens for a reason. Although Bruce and Grace are living together, Grace is clearly dissatisfied and yearns for her man to propose marriage. She wants a family and stresses that material things aren’t important to her. Bruce’s dad is remembered as a hard-working guy who found great freedom in manual labor. Bruce’s shortsighted acts of divine power sometimes have consequences (Bruce lassos the moon for Grace and pulls it closer, which inadvertently causes a tidal wave). The film praises drug-free teens and faithful single moms, and promotes grace, forgiveness and sacrifice in interpersonal relationships. A powerful song by Plumb talks about “a God-shaped hole in all of us.” (For other positive spiritual elements, see below.)

spiritual content: Ads for Bruce Almighty have had many Christians afraid that it may be an irreverent hack job on the level of Dogma or The Last Temptation of Christ. Jim Carrey’s comedy has problems, but bald-faced disrespect toward God and people of faith isn’t one of them. In fact, several scenes are simultaneously respectful, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny (such as when Bruce pleads for a “sign,” blind to the fact that he’s driving behind a truck full of warning signs he should be heeding). God is aware of every deed and thought of every person on earth—facts contained in celestial filing cabinets. The Lord turns on a light, explaining to Bruce that many people find it uncomfortably bright and spend their lives hiding from it. Unsure that the man speaking to him really is God, Bruce tests him by holding up fingers behind his back and asking “how many,” to which God responds, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord your God.”

Some families may object to Bruce shaking his fist at heaven and complaining that God isn’t doing His job (“God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass and I’m the ant. He could fix my life in five minutes if He wanted to”). He even tells God, “You suck!” But the Lord always gets the last word. Just as God chastened Job in Job 38-41, this onscreen Jehovah patiently, yet firmly tells Bruce to quit pouting and being so self-absorbed. Throughout the film, there’s an overriding sense of I’m God. You’re not. And I’m going to show you why you should trust Me. In the role of “Alpha and Omega,” Morgan Freeman projects authority, dignity, kindness and a gentle sense of humor. Director Tom Shadyac does a nice job of making his Creator an omniscient, omnipotent, fully competent and loving personality rather than an impersonal force. God isn’t aloof, but intimately interested in seeing his children “be the miracle” to one another through acts of charity. As Bruce’s relationship with God grows, he begins to see the world—and his place in it—more clearly.

On the matter of prayer, Grace gives Bruce a string of prayer beads intended to keep him safe. The beads are less of a “good luck charm” than a dramatic device (in frustration, Bruce throws this symbol of faith away, only to have it returned to him later). We learn that Grace is a prayer warrior who intercedes for Bruce. People who approach God’s throne aren’t belittled, but respected. As God, Bruce is plagued with voices in his head, and learns they are a backlog of unanswered prayers that demand his attention. He answers “yes” to them all and discovers why it’s impractical and unhealthy for God to grant every request (“They’re all out of control. This mayhem. I don’t know what to do. … There were so many, I just gave ’em all what they wanted”).

Bruce enjoys his ability to perform miracles. He parts a bowl of soup Ten Commandments style. He also creates a hot sports car and stylish wardrobe for himself. But when Grace decides to leave him, Bruce can’t stop her or change her mind. In desperation, he asks God, “How do you make somebody love you without affecting free will?” The Lord replies, “Welcome to my world, son. If you come up with an answer to that one, let me know.” Wow. Bruce also learns that truly loving people means seeing them through God’s eyes. This experience leads him to cry out to his Maker, “I want You to decide what’s right for me. I surrender to Your will!”

If the film has a spiritual flaw, it’s that it paints an incomplete picture of God’s character. There’s no sense of moral judgment or accountability (the fact that Bruce and Grace are shacking up never factors into heavenly chitchat). With no sin crisis, humanity’s need for redemption is replaced by a need for greater self- and God-awareness. The only use of Jesus’ name here is as a profanity. In the end, Freeman’s onscreen deity is embraceable by anyone who believes in a creator and sustainer of life. Christian. Muslim. Jew. Buddhist. Even co-star Sally Kirkland, an ordained minister in the Church of The Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, finds value in the movie’s spirituality. “This film can get people thinking about spirit,” says Kirkland, who plays a waitress. “Spirit exists in everybody no matter what race, creed, color, circumstance or lifestyle.” The script seems to agree. During a chat with Bruce, God alludes to the time He shared His power in similar fashion with Ghandi.

sexual content: Bruce and Grace live together, but aren’t married. It’s obvious that sex is part of their relationship based on several sly comments and one “encounter”: In preparation for sex, an all-powerful Bruce sheds his clothes (down to briefs) while Grace primps in the bathroom. Before she can join him, he divinely pleasures her from the other room (the audience watches as she is overcome with ecstasy). Passing a girl on the street, Bruce creates a gust that blows her dress up, revealing thong underwear. At a party, a co-worker makes a play for Bruce in the bedroom and is caught kissing him. A TV commercial advertises a CD containing the song “Bruce So Horny.” Wisecracks also involve pornography and unconventional sex.

violent content: Street thugs beat up Bruce and smash his car window. After being denied an apology, payback involves an animal emerging from the rectum of one of the hoods (implied) and then jumping back in. A swarm of bees attacks the other gang members. A sportscaster is knocked cold by a champagne cork. Bruce smashes his car into a pole. Later he gets hit by a truck. A chaotic uprising finds doomsday prophets and rioters clashing in the streets.

crude or profane language: Several exclamatory uses of the Lord’s name are joined by just over a dozen other profanities, including several s-words and uses of “a–hole.” There’s also one f-word. Bruce gives a pompous colleague a series of middle fingers in a creative manner just begging to be imitated by young viewers.

drug and alcohol content: Bruce and Grace drink beer at home and wine at a restaurant. Bruce pours drinks at a party. To get even with a disrespectful reporter, Bruce miraculously fills the guy’s news van with marijuana when police are present.

other negative elements: Some bathroom gags and gross humor involve flatulence, a nose-picking baker and a dog that urinates on various home furnishings.

conclusion: Aniston has been quoted as saying, “It’s hard to infuse spirituality in a bold commercial movie. There’s always going to be some group that’s going to have a problem with something if you’re dealing with God, because if it’s not their way, it’s the wrong way.” To expect a presentation of the gospel in a Jim Carrey film is unrealistic. Even so, inspiring people to think about spirituality without implying a narrow path will leave many believing that any number of theological pursuits are equally valid. Says Shadyac (a Bible-believing Catholic who also teamed with Carrey for Liar Liar), “Frankly, we don’t have the answers. We aren’t out there to make dogmatic statements. We’re there to solicit questions, to give an entertaining experience.” Such ambiguity is disappointing, but what will deter families from seeing this movie even more than that are its coarse jokes, foul language and sexual situations. Why did the filmmakers feel the need to go there? That material undermines what is otherwise a very funny, sweet and profound comedy that awakens viewers to the fundamental existence of God and our need to serve one another.

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Bob Smithouser