"There's nothing wrong with making people laugh," Jennifer Aniston tells Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, and after nine seasons on "Friends," she should know. But Carrey, who's been poking us in the ribs so long ' and so hard ' that some of us are developing bruises, appears to be at that stage of his career when he needs to be reminded that laughter, although it may not cure cancer, really is the best medicine. He burst on the scene a decade ago, talking out of his ass and stretching his facial features like so much Silly Putty. Then he started making those bids for respect that comedians can't seem to stop themselves from making, pitching his performance in The Majestic at a bull's-eye drawn on Oscar's forehead and failing to land even a nomination. Man on the Moon had missed the mark, too. Alrighty, then! Back to comedy!
Back with a vengeance. Bruce Almighty, in which Carrey plays an ordinary guy endowed with God-like powers, takes the aggression that's always fueled Carrey's comedy and multiplies it by infinity. Bruce Nolan, a local-TV news reporter in Buffalo who aspires to be an anchor, is already a jerk when we first meet him. He's so obsessed with his career that he can barely see his girlfriend, Grace, whom Aniston valiantly tries to keep from disappearing. Then the anchor job where Bruce works opens up and goes to someone else. Then a Hispanic gang ' rough town, Buffalo ' beats Bruce up and trashes his car. Then Bruce's dog, Sam, pees on the chair again. Finally, it's just too much, and our modern-day Job starts railing at The Man Upstairs, who turns out to be Morgan Freeman in an all-white suit.
Freeman's God, for reasons better left to future theologians to sort out, decides to let Bruce try his hand at the omnipotent thing. And if the guy was a jerk before, he's an all-powerful jerk now, settling scores like there's no tomorrow, which, under the circumstances, there may well not be. Some of these vengeance-is-mine moments are funny, as when the new anchor, played to plastic perfection by "Daily Show" veteran Steve Carell, starts speaking in tongues while on the air. (Bruce is off-camera, mouthing the "words.") Others are funny ideas rendered less funny by poor execution, as when the leader of that Hispanic gang, having suggested the possibility of monkeys flying out of his butt, has his prayers answered. That there's only one monkey, and that it doesn't so much fly out of his butt as crawl out of his pants, is a bitter disappointment.
Bruce Almighty is directed by Tom Shadyac, who also directed Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Liar Liar. And it's co-written by Steve Oedekerk, who wrote and directed Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. These are Carrey's boys, the ones he turns to when he wants to get his own sense of humor on the screen. Alas, they're also the guys behind Patch Adams, in which laughter was credited with curing cancer, and the gooey sentimentality that poured through that movie starts clogging up the drains in this one about halfway through. It's not that we don't want Bruce to learn how to be a better man by playing God, but Carrey's never been all that good at playing better men. He tried it in Liar Liar, which only came alive when, leaving reality behind, he was forced to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Carrey's at his best when he plays power-nerds ' geeks who don't seem to realize they're geeks, so maybe they're not geeks after all. Ace Ventura put the "id" back in "idiot," forcing the world to see things his way. But that kind of comic aggression doesn't travel as well when Carrey's playing an ordinary self-involved guy. Bruce Almighty tries to have it both ways, letting the Lord of Misrule run wild and then forcing him back in his cage, but this doesn't work either, if only because we never like Bruce enough to care about what happens to him. He's just too damn needy, and this makes Carrey seem too damn needy, not an attractive quality in a comedian.
"But it's my job to go too far," Carrey once told an interviewer who wondered whether he'd ever considered reining it in. The problem is, going too far only works when it's sufficiently grounded in surreality, as in the Ace Ventura movies, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. But Bruce Almighty, despite its out-there premise, is closer in spirit to It's a Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day. It needs Jimmy Stewart or a restrained Bill Murray, not "Fred Astaire on acid," as Carrey used to describe himself. And, while we're at it, it needs contemporary references; that Chariots of Fire bit is twice the age of the average Carrey fan, and the Dirty Harry impersonation is even older than that. Here's hoping this amazingly talented comedian gets his act together. Or maybe we should throw him an Oscar to calm him down. God forbid.