2003, Universal. Directed by Tom Shadyac. Jim Carrey, Jennifer Aniston, Morgan Freeman.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: A live-in relationship; sexual references and situations; brief violence; some crude language and profanity; an instance of obscenity; theological issues (see review).
By Steven D. Greydanus
I remember as a high-school student asking my father, "If you had to pick somebody other than God to be God, who would you pick?"
I expected him to name some very holy person, some personal hero or great saint. Instead, after a moment’s reflection, he replied thoughtfully, "I would pick a genocidal nihilist who would instantly obliterate all existence."
Theologically speaking, the question was absurd and meaningless; but the answer, I think, contained profound insight. God is both the source and the goal of our being, the meaning as well as the master of our lives. Imagine reality without God, and life becomes meaningless; imagine divine omnipotence at the disposal of anything other than divine love, and existence becomes infinite horror.
In Bruce Almighty, God hands over his power to Jim Carrey, who is not a great saint but a shallow, selfish-centered jerk named Bruce. Instead of anything like infinite horror, though, the world bumps along more or less as usual, with no worse consequences than some flooding and minor rioting.
In fairness, despite the fact that God says he’s "going on vacation," there are intimations that he hasn’t really turned everything over to Bruce. But this is really rather a cheat. Bruce turns out to be not very good in the prayer-answering department, mainly because God hasn’t sufficiently expanded his consciousness (forget about omniscience) to deal with the large number of prayers that come his way. According to Catholic belief, even the saints in heaven can do that! If God gives you more responsibility than he does power, what does it prove if you can’t do the job?
Of course Bruce Almighty is a Hollywood comedy, not The Divine Comedy. We’re not looking for anything approaching theological precision here. Theologians and apologists could explain why the whole concept of God endowing a creature with all his power (the movie speaks of all his "powers," as if he were a superhero) is self-contradictory and meaningless, and why Bruce Almighty obviously doesn’t have the power even of a heavyweight angel, let alone the Ancient of Days. But hey, it’s just a movie — a lightweight comic parable about letting God be God and trying to make a difference. Lighten up.
Right. Fine. I’m willing to give the movie its premise. And on the whole I don’t mind its depiction of God as a dignified, humorous Morgan Freeman. (Of course God is black; look at all his servants and messengers and so forth — Djimon Hounsou in The Four Feathers, Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Don Cheadle in The Family Man, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, even Freeman himself in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.)
Undoubtedly some Christians will enjoy Bruce Almighty, in part simply for its subject matter. Despite a recent bubble of religious themes at the movies, it’s still relatively unusual for Hollywood to treat God and prayer and so forth without open mockery, and Christian moviegoers may be so hungry for it that they’ll take what they can get whether the movie is good, bad, or indifferent, and even whether the treatment of religious themes is commendable or iffy.
And Bruce Almighty does have some good intentions. It takes seriously the idea of surrendering to God’s will. It depicts prayer as commendable, while debunking self-centered prayers. It also critiques the sort of passive fatalism that sits around blaming God rather than taking action to change things.
Yet the movie goes to the opposite extreme from passive fatalism by suggesting that we need to look to ourselves and not to God. In one key scene Bruce watches as God climbs a stairway (or a ladder) to heaven, leaving him behind. "But what if I need you? What if I need help?" Bruce calls after the Almighty.
My first thought was that God would say something like "I’ll always be with you" (there are precedents). Then, when I remembered that God still had the "prayer beads" Bruce had thrown away earlier in the film, I expected God to drop the beads down to Bruce, as much to say, "If you need my help, try praying."
Instead, here is what God says: "That’s your problem, Bruce — that’s everybody’s problem. You keep looking up."
In other words, stop "looking up." Stop looking to God. Look to yourself instead. "Don’t pray for a miracle," the movie emphasizes in so many words: "Be the miracle." Make a difference. Give blood. Take the high road. Care about people. Forgive. Be satisfied with what you have.
Oh. Is that what we’d be doing, if only we’d stop "looking up."
Bruce Almighty argues that we can’t be God, but it doesn’t seem to understand how we need God. There’s a lot about prayer, and the movie agrees that it’s good to pray, but it doesn’t have much interest in what good it is — why prayer matters. There are gestures in the direction of why God can’t just grant everybody’s prayers, but little insight into why God might want us to pray in the first place.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the movie conceives of prayer exclusively in a petitionary mode, in terms what we ask of God — as opposed to, say, prayers of worship or adoration, or even thanksgiving or repentance. Sometimes the prayers are selfish, sometimes selfless, but always people pray only to ask God for help.
The idea that one might ever have anything to say to God that didn’t involve what we want or need at the moment — that, in a word, it might be both possible and desirable to pursue a relationship with one’s Maker — has no place here. The movie touches on belief in God, even trust in God, but it hasn’t got a clue about faith.
Part and parcel of this is the typical movie picture of God as a deity who wants us to be good and happy, but is nothing remotely like the object and goal of our being, our holy obsession, our life and our all. He’s a sort of kindly manager or superintendent — just the sort of deity you might happen to pray to when you want something, but would never think of turning to just to spend time with him, or to ask forgiveness for your sins.
Speaking of sins, that’s another notion that’s pretty much absent from the film. In this day and age, it’s hardly surprising to find that, for instance, the hero and the heroine are cohabitating outside of wedlock. (I was a bit surprised at the way the movie apparently takes this fact for granted during the first half of the film, while, for example, Grace sits working on their photo albums.) But I can’t help noticing that, despite Bruce being cross-examined by God on several occasions, there’s never any slightest hint that the Almighty might have a preference for marriage over cohabitation.
I was reminded of Kevin Smith’s Dogma, a film with many faults that nevertheless managed to cast aspersions on a whole litany of sins including idolatry, adultery, suicide, cheating on taxes, and neglecting the needs of one’s elderly parents. Bruce Almighty is a much safer, less provocative film, yet here God seems basically concerned that people be unselfish and positive and pro-active and so forth.
All of this might go down easier if Carrey and director Tom Shadyac (Dragonfly, Patch Adams) weren’t so determined to set their sights equally low in every other respect. Bruce Almighty is excessively preoccupied with nose-picking and dog urination (one of Bruce’s triumphant "be-the-miracle" moments is when he finally trains his dog to pee on the grass instead of on the furniture). In the film’s lowest gag, Bruce uses his powers to make a monkey appear out of a man’s butt (à la the camel and the needle’s eye, I suppose) — then, as the man struggles to get away, the monkey forces his way back in again. Yuck.
Yes, in addition to its theological faults, Bruce Almighty isn’t very funny or creative (though there are scattered funny scenes). I could write a whole review on the film’s artistic failings, but lots of critics will be doing that, and the world doesn’t need another artistic deconstruction of another Tom Shadyac film. It probably doesn’t need a theological deconstruction of one either, but if I have to spend my time doing one or the other, I choose to write about the movie’s theological failings. That’s what you really wanted to read about, wasn’t it?