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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A few years back, I wrote an article about the new wave of Christian filmmaking. For that piece, I interviewed one of the leading Christian directors and asked him what he thought needed to happen in order for faith-based movies to move into the mainstream. His answer was that they needed to have bigger, more bankable stars, and also to focus as much on the entertaining as on the preaching. Evan Almighty could be a template for what he was talking about. This all-star summer sequel is designed to appeal to mass audiences, yet it’s also unapologetically religious. It’ll be interesting to see how moviegoers accept it. Personally, I enjoyed the mixture of laughter and meaning, and I really liked the performance of the film’s lead actor.

Steve Carell (a man for whom I reserve the words “brilliant” and “comedic genius”) stars in this sequel to the 2003 Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty. Carell reprises his role as newscaster Evan Baxter, who was so memorably forced to speak on-air gibberish in the original. Evan has now left the news business after a successful run for Congress. Life changes pretty quickly: not only does he have a nice office on Capitol Hill, he also has a professional staff (including Wanda Sykes and John Michael Higgins), and a large new house in an upscale Virginia development.

One night, Evan’s wife Joan (Lauren Graham) tells him that he needs to pray more. He complies; hoping to use his office to “change the world,” Evan prays for help to do just that. God (Morgan Freeman) responds by appearing to Evan and instructing him to build an ark, just like Noah did. Initially, Evan tries to ignore this divine intervention (convincing himself he’s merely under stress), but God keeps him on track by literally giving him the appearance of a Biblical figure: scraggly hair, big beard, swarthy robes to replace his power suits. It gets to the point that Evan can no longer pretend his situation is not real, so he enlists Joan and their three sons to help him with the ark, even if his preoccupation does threaten to harm his relationship with a powerful congressman (John Goodman) who wants him to co-sponsor a new bill. Besides, he can’t very well ignore all those animals that have shown up in his front yard, can he?

I’ll be the first to admit that Evan Almighty is kind of a loopy movie. It starts off as a silly comedy, with Evan noticing strange goings-on, like the fact that animals follow him in pairs wherever he goes. Or that his beard grows back mere seconds after he’s done shaving it. Then, after about 50 minutes or so, it evolves into a (humor-based) religious parable, with Evan taking his calling seriously and devoting himself to doing God’s will. The final 15 minutes even have some scenes that make it feel like an old Irwin Allen disaster flick. My suspicion is that the evolution of the plot may strike some viewers the wrong way, but if you’re going to depict an event of Biblical proportions, shouldn’t the plot be…you know, grandiose? Fortunately, the comedy sections are extremely funny and the religious message (which ultimately makes the point that one person really can change the world) is heartfelt. The disaster scenes falter just a bit from some glaring implausibility – wait till you see where the ark ends up – but at least they get us where we’re going.

There is something about both Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty that sends you away feeling good. I think the religious content in both pictures is very reassuring, but more than that, I believe it has something to do with Morgan Freeman. The veteran actor exudes a sense of cool confidence, patience, and unconditional love/empathy for everyone else on screen. There is something so calming and comforting about his presence in these movies and in his approach to the role. Other actors have played God, but Freeman plays God the way many of us hope (or believe) that He really is.

Let’s talk for a minute about Steve Carell. This is one of the funniest people on the planet. I had never seen him in anything prior to Bruce Almighty, and the scene where he’s forced to speak gibberish still makes me laugh until I have tears rolling down my face. Carell switches tracks this time – Evan’s pomposity is replaced by comic disbelief – yet he still earns big laughs, even from the occasional jokes that don’t seem fresh. For example, there’s a montage of Evan repeatedly injuring himself while building the ark. This sort of thing has been done to death, but Carell gives Evan a unique and different response to each mishap, so that it ends up being funny all over again.

When the material is fresh, Carell slam dunks it. He nicely blends horrified disbelief and humiliation in the scenes where Evan realizes he’s turning into a modern-day Noah. The character tries to hide it from everyone else, especially that powerful congressman, but it’s not easy when there are two dozen birds sitting on him. You laugh harder the more Evan squirms. On his TV show “The Office” and in films like Anchorman and The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Carell has proven himself to be as diverse as he is innovative.

Speaking of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, be sure to look out for a killer in-joke when Evan passes a town movie theater. And notice God’s nametag when he poses as a waiter to speak to Joan. And how a certain verse from the Bible keeps manifesting itself in Evan’s life. Director Tom Shadyac (who also helmed the original) peppers the film with religious references that are fun to pick out. Again, the mixture of comedy and a faith message may put off some audience members, but I suspect that a lot more will approve. Evan Almighty is proof that you can make a mainstream movie dealing with religion in a way that’s meaningful without ever sacrificing entertainment value. I laughed a lot and walked away feeling uplifted. Amen to that.

( out of four)

Evan Almighty is rated PG for mild rude humor and some peril. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Evan Almighty

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