When Morgan Freeman prevails upon me to, say, part the border fence and let the illegal immigrants go, I hope that assignment proves more compelling than watching Steve Carell build an ark in "Evan Almighty ." This wimpy family comedy tries, half-heartedly, to fuse the planet's ecological woes with much of the country's religious convictions, while taking broad swipes at legislative malfeasance in the Capitol. If that combination sounds remotely enticing, wait for the "South Park " episode that would do it justice.
In the meantime, this is a harmless excuse to watch cute critters (from farm, forest, and jungle) harass Carell as he reprises an expanded version of a minor but funny role he played in "Bruce Almighty ," that Jim Carrey smash from 2003. In those four years, the American film comedy landscape has changed significantly. Carrey, who even then seemed desperate for darker movies, has all but renounced gangbusters slapstick, and Carell, while being a very different sort of actor (his m.o. is internal combustion), now seems the brighter star.
Only in the last 30 minutes does "Evan Almighty" put his gifts to decent use. Epically hairy and biblically robed, Carell suggests at that point what a bolder, more psychologically serious treatment of religious conviction would have been like. Until then he seems like Paul Lynde freaking out in a high-concept kiddie comedy from the 1970s.
When his character, Evan Baxter , is elected to Congress, he quits his news anchor job and moves his wife (Lauren Graham , languishing in a long-suffering-wife role) and their three sons from Buffalo into an exurban Virginia McMansion overlooking an expanse of barren lots. On the eve of his first day in office, he prays for help in changing the world. Changing Tom Shadyac's mercilessly broad direction would have been more useful. Most of the gags are underscored by grubby close-ups. One shot pulls in tight for a movie theater whose marquee reads "The 40-Year-Old Virgin Mary " (har har). The filmmaking is the equivalent of large type.
After seeing the numbers 6:14 wherever he goes (a nod to that fateful passage in Genesis), Evan receives a visit from God, who's still played by the supremely mellow Freeman. For days, He's been having lumber and tools dropped off outside Evan's house. Animals have been following him in twos to his roomy office (birds of all feathers flock over him like storm clouds that rain poop) and, as an interesting companion development to Carell's chest-waxing sequence in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin ," Evan's hair refuses to stop growing. Indeed, God wants this man to be his Noah and build an ark in preparation for a Great Flood.
But Freeman's is not a wrathful Lord. Frankly, his unflappable incarnation wouldn't be out of place in a Cheech and Chong movie. Most of the story's energy is spent building to Evan's showdown with John Goodman , as a crooked senior congressman who wants Evan to co-sponsor a shady land-use bill. No one's party affiliation ever comes up, but apparently God wants more church in His state. Shockingly, this flood is less an allergic reaction to any global catastrophe and more the result of what happens when a studio has too much cash to blow on a wild effects sequence.
Actually, at a rumored $175 million, the movie tops "Waterworld " as the most expensive aquatic comedy ever made. The resulting merits of such an achievement are debatable. (Is a big budget like a musical score: best undetected?) Hopefully a lot of that money went to Wanda Sykes , who plays one of Evan's staffers. It's a huge relief to see that in a movie full of critters, Sykes, for once, is playing a human. She wins most of the movie's laughs tossing barbs at anyone she can. When Carell comes to work with a beard and mane, one of her Teflon putdowns is, "You look like a Bee Gee."
She's the riskiest, sharpest thing in a movie that strives to be all things to all people. That might work for God and certain politicians, but it's a monotonous approach to comedy.