Tuesday, June 26, 2007


BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003, USA, Tom Shadyac)
BRUCE: How do you make someone love you without changing free will?
GOD: Welcome to my world, son. You come up with an answer to that one, you let me know.

Believe it or not, this sometimes-amusing, sometimes-trying-too-hard-to-be-ingratiating little flick got me thinking about the problem of evil. How actions have consequences. How maybe sometimes even God couldn't administer the medicine to salve our scrapes without all kinds of unwanted side-effects. Why doesn't he answer our every prayer, fix our every problem? Well, what if He did? Bigger problems. Either God makes us free – "free to be selfish," as C.S. Lewis puts it in SHADOWLANDS – and allows us to suffer the consequences of our own and everybody else's freedom and selfishness, or He seals us off from the discomfort, even the agonies, that follow our stupid choices – and then we're nothing but little God puppets. No, God chose to give us choice with all its consequences, and that means there's going to be pain in the world, even terrible suffering, because that comes along with our freedom to choose.

Okay, I'll admit, theodicy isn't the main theme here (though I suppose prayer just might be). But it's in there, along with a whole lot of other unexpected insights. It's that kind of movie. You can watch it for the broad Jim Carrey humour, the jokes about girls' breasts and dogs peeing and people farting – big draw for me, I gotta tell ya, though some of that dog stuff did get me laughing. (They warn you that "some material may be inappropriate for children under thirteen," but I'm thinking that stuff's only appropriate for children under thirteen.) Or you can watch it for some pretty fun situational comedy, or for a romance story that's actually got something to say about love – not earth-shattering, but worth saying.

Or you can keep one eye on this more-than-meets-the-eye movie's theological preoccupations and wind up with some great conversation fodder. (Want a clip to kick off the chat? Jump in at Chapter 15, where the Stanley Cup riots break out, or even further in, at 1:16:25 or so, let it roll right through Bruce's "long talk with God" and you've got yourself a discussion. To keep the momentum going, throw in the "Answering Prayer" sequence at around 16:32 from the Deleted Scenes – good stuff there. Seems pretty clear it wasn't just the director who is a person of faith: somebody on the Steve Koren / Mark O'Keefe / Steve Oedekerk writing team obviously knows a thing or two about this "God business." The screenplay is not only clever, sometimes it's maybe even wise.

Sure, I had big qualms when it seemed God's final pep talk before ascending back to heaven was landing a little too close to the standard Gospel According Hollywood heresy of self-reliance: "That's your problem, Bruce – you keep looking up." Hmmm... But hold on to that image of Bruce mopping the floor alongside a janitor God and you'll get your money's worth. God may climb back into heaven and tell Bruce it's all up to him, but sometimes God only tells us the part of the truth we need to hear at the moment. It's not long before Morgan Freeman's version of the Almighty shows Himself no watchmaker deity after all: he's more than willing to listen in on the occasional bedtime prayer, and even to do something about it.

It's amazing the way this cute little film pays off - eventually. If you like Jim Carrey you're home free, but it took me a long time to get past the frenzied non-stop mugging – he's basically a self-impressed Jerry Lewis – and I was a pretty far in before I started warming up to the "So you want to play God?" scenario. In time, though, the hundreds of clever details and the surprising glimpses of truth won me over. How about the ongoing bit about the homeless guy with the signs? With a great double pay-off that's worth waiting for. And there's that burning billboard, that takes us remarkably close to George MacDonald territory: is it a Higher Power or a Lower one that might be willing to indulge our every whim, say yes to every prayer? See what I mean about this movie covering a lot of theological territory? Maybe the movie ends up saying its best stuff about vocation, or maybe just plain contentment. Stuff that's well worth saying in our ambitious, "I want it all" world.

And hey, who picked those songs! Tony Bennett in the fancy restaurant singing "If I Ruled The World," Bruce mangling Joan Osborne's "One Of Us," not to mention "God-Shaped Hole" and "Ready For A Miracle" and "You're A God" and "I'm With You"... Kudos to the soundtrack dudes. (And on the comedy front, I'll have to admit, even a Carrey-careful Scrooge like me got to laughing pretty good eventually. The movie's gets up a nice comic rhythm now and then – Steve Carell had me howling with his brilliantly bad debut as news anchor – and when it comes to Carrey, if you can forgive him his excesses, there's some nice work there, especially near the end when he – and Bruce – stop trying so darn hard.)

BRUCE ALMIGHTY provides a classic opportunity to flex your "Find the good in it" muscles. It's dead easy to point out the problems, fixate on the annoying stuff, and miss what's actually working. But if you invest the effort to get onside with the movie and see what it hactually has to offer, you might be surprised. Personally, I think BRUCE's stupidity is all on the surface. It's only superficially shallow: way down deep, it's actually pretty deep. No less a theologian than Robert K. Johnston, president of the American Theological Society, praises the film, calling it "Theology 101 – a class that everyone can enjoy." No, it's not the graduate level course, but he suggests it's not a bad Intro To The Sovereignty of God. Johnston points us to the controversial book The Openness Of God for the more advanced stuff. (1994, InterVarsity Press)

This movie works on a number of levels. Its dumb-funny. It's smart-funny. It's a pretty decent love story – Bruce's romantic epiphany is hard to fault. And it's got more theology per square gag than you'd ever have thought: some of it good, some of it so-so, but all of it grist for some pretty interesting conversation.


1 comment:

Frank Bellizzi said...

Fine review. My taste and interests are similar to yours, so a lot of your reactions match up with what I was thinking.

I just came back to this movie because I'm supposed to be doing a lesson on "The Sovereignty of God." I'm considering using a clip from Bruce. So thanks for the pointers to certain parts of the DVD. Nicely done.