Like the modern-day ark that its hero risks his job, his family, and his reputation to build, Evan Almighty feels like a vast, ponderous folly. It’s a deeply strange movie—in part because it’s so conventional. Fans of the perverse Steve Carell found in The Office, The Daily Show, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin –the Steve Carell who, as Seth Rogen observed in that movie, is so nice he just has to be a serial killer—will be disappointed to find here a Carell who’s just nice. Evan Baxter, the workaholic Congressman-turned-latter-day-Noah, is a character that could just as easily have been played by Steve Martin (in his current, family-friendly incarnation) or, God forbid, Tim Allen.
Though it’s a loose spinoff from the 2003 Jim Carrey hit Bruce Almighty, the plot of Evan Almighty owes a greater debt to the 1977 Carl Reiner comedy Oh, God, in which John Denver plays a supermarket manager visited by the Supreme Being (George Burns). Like Denver’s character, Evan starts out as a dubious semi-believer who’s eventually converted into a do-gooding true believer. But whereas Oh, God was charmingly irreverent—a religiously themed movie even an atheist could love—Evan Almighty bears the stamp of the Bush era. Its politics may be nominally green (the Lord’s ultimate goal is to stop environmentally harmful legislation), but its approach to revelation is strictly constructionist. When God (Morgan Freeman) instructs Evan to re-enact Genesis 6:14, He means His instructions to be taken as literally and biblically as possible, right down to the vintage pre-Flood tool kit, the facial hair, and the flowing robes.
Evan, his wife Joan, and their three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth (just kidding! Dylan, Jordan, and Ryan), have recently moved to a D.C. suburb called Prestige Crest that’s built on the site of a once-pristine valley. Having run for office (for which party? we’re never told) on a “Change the World” platform, Evan promptly sells out to a powerful congressman (John Goodman) who’s pushing a bill that would allow development inside national parks. Do you see where this is going? Trees will be hugged, parks saved, unscrupulous legislators vanquished—and one man will learn to spend more time with his family. This is the Old Testament minus the wrath, divine retribution as chicken soup for the soul—where’s the fun in that?
Reportedly, a huge percentage of the movie’s $175 million budget—it’s one of the most expensive comedies ever made—went for animal wrangling and special effects. The scenes of birds and beasts following two by two after Carell as he makes his way up the Capitol steps or hammers away at his boat are visually impressive, but joyless—who would want to save species as docile and plodding as these? Except for the copious bird-poop gags and a few baboon hijinks, these expensively wrangled and CGI-enhanced beasts might as well be made of wood.
Lauren Graham, who was razor-sharp as Lorelai on Gilmore Girls, gives an unfocused performance as Evan’s wife, and Wanda Sykes’ snappy delivery can’t save the flaccid punch lines given to her character. She plays Evan’s “executive assistant,” and the fact that the only black woman in this apparently all-white, all-male Congress is a secretary is hereby noted with a resigned sigh.
A running joke has Carell’s Evan “doing the dance”—breaking out into a stiff white-man’s boogie to celebrate moments of domestic joy. But during the goofy final credit sequence, Carell pulls out the stops and really dances with the rest of the cast and crew—idiotically, suggestively, hilariously. It’s a reminder of what a gifted comic he can be when not called upon to stand as the defender of family values and mammalian pair-bonding. I really hope Evan Almighty doesn’t become a surprise hit with a niche audience (Christian, environmentalist 8-year-olds?). Too much worldly success might tempt Steve Carell away from the righteous path of making movies as dark, weird, and funny as he is himself.