God is a multiple choice quiz. Which God will we choose? One turns nosy old women into pillars of salt, slips serpents down the togas of Egyptians and sets Satan loose on his best friend just to see how he will stand up under the boils and windy advice of neighbors. Another rains down Wonder Bread in the desert, gives an old couple a child late in life and builds great rainbows in the sky to celebrate the end of a prolonged cruise marked by terrible weather, restless pets and a contentious family.
The Greeks and Romans endowed their gods with all-too-human characteristics: lust, envy, greed, revenge and wounded vanity. These traits made them familiar for us mortals, but not terribly edifying. At the other end of the spectrum, the Hebrews kept their God up there in the clouds, a disembodied voice whose very name might not be uttered. Christians try to have it both ways: commandments and brimstone in the Old Testament and beatitudes and lambs in the New. But even Christians seem subject to the whims of the times. In the days of Joyce’s famous retreat in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, God watched every move, waiting for some excuse to plunge the careless schoolboy into the everlasting sauna. In the New Age theologies, God is more, like, laid-back. You know, live and let live. Approachable. Nice. We’re constantly shifting our metaphors and analogies to try to get to the heart of the mystery.
Bruce Almighty is, like, with it. Personally, I’d rather be without it, but many people seem concerned about the film. It has attracted a huge audience, and even some of the critics who have written passionately about it may have seen it. It follows the post-Joycean trend. In recent years we’ve had the comedian George Burns in a fishing hat as the eponymous hero in “Oh God!” and the singer Alanis Morrissette in a sorry tutu in “Dogma.” If movies are a barometer of culture, then it seems clear that in this age the gift of the Holy Spirit called “fear of the Lord” has gone the way of the Edsel and Hula Hoop. Leave awe and sonorous off-screen voices to Charlton Heston epics and the Eisenhower administration.
In “Bruce Almighty” Morgan Freeman gives us a nice cozy God, seen through human eyes as a custodian in a spotless, empty loft building. Armed only with mop and bucket, he radiates a soft-spoken, self-assured dignity. Would that the world were as easily sanitized and ordered as his office. This empty suite is the ideal universe as it would look if God could do his job without unruly human beings coming on the scene to make a cosmic mess of things. It’s clean, but truth be told, a bit sterile, chilly and dull.
Jim Carrey, as Bruce Nolan, redefines the term “unruly.” In fact, he makes chaos seem a laughably inadequate euphemism. Even when he stands still on the screen, his expression and body language shout out warnings of the explosion of manic energy to come. He is 70 years too young. With his elastic face and remarkable comic athleticism he would have been a silent-movie clown to rival Chaplin. But in a world where adults speak and frequently communicate ideas, he seems out of place. He is the precocious child brought in to a wedding reception. At first, his antics amuse the bridal party, but encouraged by the laughter and intoxicated by the attention, he notches up his act and soon becomes a royal pain in the wedding cake. Jim Carrey’s physical comedy acts like strychnine: convulsions leading to paralysis.
But in this film it works. Bruce’s antic behavior reflects his infantile spiritual development in stark contrast to the measured speech and deliberate movements of Morgan Freeman. Bruce Nolan has never grown up, and that is the point of the story. He inhabits the child’s self-centered universe; the musical scale of his personality has but one note: me-me-me. In the adult world he visits on a tourist visa, he does feel-good feature stories for the local television news in Buffalo, but he longs to become the chief suit and haircut at the anchor desk. His boyish charm and goofy grin make him a natural for stories like the world’s largest chocolate-chip cookie. His assignment to do a live interview during an anniversary voyage of the Maid of the Mist around Niagara Falls turns out to be an excuse to get him out of the studio when his rival takes over as the new anchor. When he hears about the appointment over his earpiece, Bruce turns the live interview into an attack on the station, thus burning his bridges before him.
Like any immature person, Bruce has to blame someone else for his misfortune. His live-in girlfriend, Grace Connelly (Jennifer Aniston), takes the first assault, but Bruce saves the major tantrum for God. He shouts, “Why me?” A normal person would respond, “Because you’re a jerk,” but God shows more patience for his misbehaving creatures. He calls Bruce on his cell phone and initiates a little game. If Bruce thinks God is doing such a poor job of running the universe, let him take a turn. God lets Bruce have all his power, and—here’s the catch—the responsibility.
True to form, Bruce uses his powers like a child with a new toy. He makes a woman’s dress fly up, gets a new outfit for himself, transforms his wreck of a car into a Porsche and then parts traffic as though it were the Red Sea. All harmless enough. His game takes a nasty turn, however, when he garbles the voice of the new anchor so that he can replace him. After a night of miracle-enhanced romance with Grace, he takes her to a candle-lit dinner in the best restaurant in town. Good Irish Catholic girl that she is, Grace thinks he will finally propose marriage, but he announces that he will be the new anchor. Me-me-me. She’s had enough of that tune, and disappointed and humiliated, she leaves.
The God business enters a tailspin. After a series of disasters, he slowly realizes that as God he never listens to people when they pray and, as Bruce Nolan, when they try to love him. (Grace has earned her name.) Maybe that is why things never work out for him. If he is to succeed, not as God, but as Bruce Nolan, he has to expand his horizons beyond his own hatband.
“Bruce Almighty,” like any other movie that tries to deal with God outside the biblical framework, produces predictable schizophrenic reactions among religious organizations. Universal Studios, with the controversy surrounding Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) still smoldering in its corporate memory, even hired an evangelical public-relations firm, Grace Hill Media, to diffuse any complaints that might arise from re-employed Taliban.
One might ask, what’s the beef? “Bruce Almighty” teaches a mainstream, catechetical message by having its main character see the emptiness of his self-centered materialistic life and learn the value of human love. The script provides a thematic restatement of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which this film cites on several occasions. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, tries to take his own life when creditors threaten to close his bank. Through the angel Clarence, he discovers that family and friends are more valuable than liquid assets. Bruce learns that nature builds on Grace, not the anchor desk.
The problem, for those who have one, rests with the first commandment. Some faith traditions interpret “graven images” so broadly that any representation of God or even the human form in art is forbidden. Some accept icons and biblically grounded images as fitting expressions of reverence, but comedy, especially in contemporary dress, strikes them as perilously close to blasphemy. There’s no arguing with history.
For good or ill, we live in an age that fails to distinguish between reverence and pomposity. Making God approachable fits in with contemporary egalitarian ideals: God is just like us, only more so. The priest lurking under my gray hair would prefer a bit more awe in his theological stew, but has no problem with an occasional taste of spiritual fast food. As for “Bruce Almighty,” it’s a breezy summer movie, a god-burger if you will, not a theological treatise. Enjoy it, if you will, then return to your diet of Dostoevsky and Bernanos.