Bruce Almighty

God's in the details, Jim's in his element
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Ten years into a successful career, most comedy stars in Jim Carrey's position might be expected to flag, to be shiftless or tainted by indulgence and self-loathing - to go the Eddie Murphy route, in short. You only have to see a few moments of Bruce Almighty to realise that Carrey is still hungry, indeed ravenous - for attention, for applause, most of all for gobbling up the scenery.

Carrey is an acquired taste: at first, I couldn't see his goofing and gurning as anything other than a painful, cynical, incongruously macho derivative of Jerry Lewis. It was with Dumb and Dumber that I began to get it: the whole thing with Carrey is his relentless consistency, his refusal to wind down until every last bit of juice has been squeezed out of a comic moment. He's hardly subtle, but there's something magnetic about his monstrous compulsion to be noticed - noticed, mark you, not loved, which is where he differs from soft-hearted (and supposedly more high-toned) show-offs like Robin Williams and Roberto Benigni. Carrey resembles a large, energetic and possibly rabid dog, feverishly rubbing himself up against the surfaces of any film he's in, imbuing it with his own exuberantly rank scent.

Bruce Almighty is agreeably spiky, given that in many respects it's as soft as any straight comedy Carrey has made since Liar Liar (1997), in which he played a self-absorbed, neglectful father redeemed by a magic spell. Made by the same director, Carrey's faithful sidekick Tom Shadyac, Bruce Almighty has effectively the same premise: here too he's a self-absorbed, neglectful jerk who undergoes a magical, absurd and ultimately humbling experience that releases his inner Care Bear. Bruce is a local TV reporter who resents always covering comedy items, like the baking of a giant cookie. He's grown to hate his life, even though it involves sleeping with Jennifer Aniston, as his pointedly-named girlfriend Grace. The day his smarmy rival gets the job he's after, Bruce cracks up live on air; there's no one like Carrey for cracking up, working his ferally toothy face for all the comic anguish it's worth.

After Bruce vents his spleen in a little light blasphemy, God himself appears, in the form of a wry, white-suited, almost scandalously laid-back Morgan Freeman (who must be sick to death of unflappably commanding respect). The Deity's idea of a morally instructive prank is to bestow His power on Bruce and see how he likes it. At first, Bruce likes it just fine, because it offers endless scope for cartoonish shtick: blowing up girls' skirts ("And he saw that it was good!", Carrey leers), smiting his enemies with capuchin monkeys, and engineering miraculous scoops to get his job back (one of the three credited writers, Steve Koren, is a former Seinfeld hand, and I'd like to imagine he's the one responsible for an inspired gag about Jimmy Hoffa). The down side of omnipotence is that there are also prayers to answer, more than Bruce can keep track of, even with a roomful of Post-it notes (a delicious, even poetic sight gag in an otherwise visually mundane film). What's encouraging about this basically routine high-concept romp is that, although it's laden with CGI trickery, Carrey himself doesn't rely on ready-made visual miracle. When Bruce emulates Charlton Heston's Moses by parting a bowl of tomato soup (Red Sea, get it?), we're impressed less by Shadyac doing his table-top miniature Cecil B DeMille than by Carrey's facial commentary, rolling his eyes in crazed exaltation. When Bruce lassos the moon for his beloved, Carrey is really using this digital effect as a prop for his physical elasticity. Watch his lanky flailing as Bruce wakes up in the morning, and you're seeing that rarity - a star who'll actually break sweat for our amusement.

It's tempting to read Bruce Almighty as a veiled portrait of Carrey himself. Bruce is the resident joker, but he really wants to be taken seriously. Carrey himself has gone in search of credibility, with varying success, inThe Truman Show, Man in the Moon and The Majestic, all of which left large sections of his audience unimpressed. The remarkable US box-office success of Bruce Almighty (it knocked The Matrix Reloaded off the number one spot after only a week) is explained by the fact that Carrey here returns to his old bug-eyed live-wire routine, and not with weary resignation but as if in a big joyous homecoming, flashing his dog-like choppers more ferociously than ever, almost acting the impassioned evangelist for wild-and-crazy-guy-hood. Needless to say, no one else gets much of a look-in, apart from a spectacular fit of bug-eyed glossolalia from one Steve Carell, while Aniston, so subtly neurotic in last year's The Good Girl, must make do with the role of the sympathetic girlfriend in peasant tops.

The film's moral is ostensibly that we should be humble and count our blessings, and while we're at it, make our own blessings instead of constantly bending the Deity's ear. But the real lesson pertains to Carrey's own career. Bruce's final realisation is that his "divine spark" lies in the ability to raise laughs, and Bruce Almighty comes across as Carrey's profession of faith that laying on a few well-timed pratfalls is a more noble calling than all the arty stuff he's been trying lately. You might think that making a big, effects-laden film is a strange way to strike a blow for simplicity, but it works. If you can stomach the last 15 minutes - which is where the saccharine finally sets in - Bruce Almighty is cheerful, silly, occasionally inspired and pretty much does an honest value-for-money job, which these days really is some sort of miracle in a Hollywood comedy.