What If God Was One of Us, And His Name Was … Jim Carrey

Tom Shadyac’s Bruce Almighty , from a screenplay by Steve Koren, Mark O’Keefe and Steve Oedekerk, plays out on the screen as a little movie of modest invention, but with mysteriously massive box-office returns-at least in that magical first week that determines bragging rights for a whole season, if not longer. Of course, vulgar commercial success usually strikes this relentlessly serious-minded reviewer as a sure sign of mediocrity. Besides, any farcical comedy promoted on the basis of childish potty humor and the manifestation of God in the persona of a goofily lovable character actor fills me with dread and suspicion.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself somewhat enjoying a crowded daytime showing of this latest Jim Carrey vehicle at my local multiplex. One might suspect that by expecting nothing (I had read the mostly tepid reviews before venturing into the theater), I was overjoyed to find a little something. And perhaps I’d felt an atavistic desire to return to the moviegoing herd I had long ago abandoned to become an arbiter of what is worth seeing and what is plainly not.

For Mr. Carrey, however, Bruce Almighty marked a career-boosting, if not a career-saving, comeback after his unsuccessful efforts to out-Capra Frank Capra and out-Stewart Jimmy Stewart in his previous ill-fated vehicle, The Majestic (2001), in which the 1950′s Hollywood blacklist is denounced at great length with emotionally hollow hysteria. After The Majestic , word spread around Hollywood that Mr. Carrey-like Robin Williams before him-felt too significantly talented to avail his comic genius simply to make audiences laugh their heads off.

Of course, one cannot fault Messrs. Carrey and Williams for following the middlebrow industry dictate that comedy-and especially farce-is not to be taken as seriously as “socially significant” drama. (The annual Oscar nominations prove my case.) In Bruce Almighty, Mr. Carrey returns to his comic roots with Mr. Shadyac, his director in the dangerously silly Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), almost a decade ago. This time around, Mr. Carrey and Mr. Shadyac walk an equally perilous tightrope with a muchness of a niceness that threatens to make them lose their comic balance due to an excess of sentimentality. But somehow, they escape with only one or two minor missteps.

The first occurs when Mr. Carrey’s Bruce Nolan, Buffalo’s “local color” TV reporter, newly empowered by a zap from Morgan Freeman’s avuncular God, happens to catch a moment on television when Jimmy Stewart is literally promising the moon to Donna Reed in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Bruce brings the movie’s paper moon down closer to his own beloved, Grace Connelly (Jennifer Aniston). Later, there are reports around the world of tidal waves-caused by the increased proximity of the moon-wreaking death and destruction everywhere. This news is just as well, because this is a movie that must stay small and provincial to avoid becoming stupidly grandiose. After all, the Buffalo of Bruce Almighty is not the grimly existential Buffalo of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 (1998), but a replica shot entirely in Los Angeles. Indeed, it’s a Buffalo of old Polish jokes, hopelessly cut off from the rest of the world by its own demented self-absorption.

The second misstep involves Bruce’s pre- (or post-)feminist sweetheart, Grace-an intentionally ecclesiastic name-who serves as Bruce’s salvation from his own monomaniacal ambition to replace the town’s TV-news anchorman. All Grace wants from Bruce is a wedding ring and lots of children. But is Grace’s retro zeal really a misstep, or a crafty commercial calculation designed to exploit the current backlash against feminism?

No matter: Mr. Carrey gets some of his biggest laughs in years by playing up the darker side of his character’s small-mindedness. He is assisted by a letter-perfect supporting cast which, in addition to Mr. Freeman and Ms. Aniston, includes Philip Baker Hall as Bruce’s wishy-washy boss, Jack Keller; Steven Carell, a television-trained-and-timed comic sensation in his own right, as Evan Baxter, Bruce’s rival; Catherine Bell’s Susan Ortega, Bruce and Evan’s co-anchor; and an array of supporting-cameo bit players lending the leads a full range of eccentric foils. The moral, I suppose, is “Don’t be conceited,” which I remember vaguely from grammar school and wonder if anyone still really believes. And the subtext? That Mr. Carrey’s gifts are, in fact, God-given-and to that I say, “Amen.”

To the Manner Born

Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s The Heart of Me , from a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann, unfolds on the screen as the most moving kind of love story- intelligent and passionate, carnal and spiritual, joyous, mournful and hounded on all sides by the exigencies of time, history and memory. Good casting, acting, writing and directing help, too, and The Heart of Me has these in profusion.

The action commences at a funeral in London in 1934. Two sisters, Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter) and Madeleine (Olivia Williams), attend their father’s funeral together with their mother, Mrs. Burkett (Eleanor Bron). Madeleine, the older sister, is accompanied by her husband Rickie (Paul Bettany) and their son Anthony. Contrasts are established very quickly between Dinah’s bubbly bohemianism and Madeleine’s steely self-control. Mrs. Burkett stands between her two daughters as an unflinching upholder of propriety. Rickie is fascinated by Dinah’s free spirit, and it is only a matter of time before he will inevitably surrender himself to this fascination.

Back in her elegant home, Madeleine assures Dinah that she can stay as long as she likes, but she later confides to Rickie that she is worried about her sister’s future unless Dinah quickly finds a husband. Yet when a seemingly suitable but hardly idyllic match is arranged for Dinah, Rickie impulsively goes into Dinah’s bedroom late at night and orders her to break her engagement-which she later happily does, much to her sister’s consternation. Rickie initiates an affair with Dinah soon after, and their three lives are thereon tempestuously affected and interconnected forever. Actually, four lives, since the mother of the two sisters will continue to exert a powerful influence in the interests of keeping up appearances, despite all the errant affinities involved.

The story goes forward and back through no fewer than seven flashbacks and flash-forwards over the next 12 years. World War II disappears in the mists of history, with the global conflict’s only relevant consequence being the death in action of Madeleine’s son Anthony. The decisive years traveled in the course of the story are 1934, 1946, 1937, 1946, 1937, 1946, 1939, 1946. One baby born of love dies in childbirth; another born in hate lives and flourishes.

I have never read the Lehmann novel on which the film is based, and so I don’t know if that is where the chronological structure originated, but the effect of the resulting fragmentation is a simulation of the clipped tones of upper-class English life between the two world wars-the first of which claimed the life of Rickie’s father, and the second of his son.

The 1930′s are perceived here as a period of disillusionment and crumbling moral values. The Heart of Me , however, is more a chamber drama than a teeming social tract, and its graphic sexuality is more characteristic of contemporary filmmaking than of what was shown on the screen 70 years ago. Though at times Madeleine seems stiffly unfeeling, Dinah selfishly self-absorbed, and Rickie weak and easily manipulated, all three characters not only end up with our sympathy, but also manage to embody the film’s lyrical metaphor: a kite swaying aloft that links two generations in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. But oh, the pain and heartbreak in between!

Russian Godfather

Paul Lounguine’s Tycoon: A New Russian , from a screenplay by Alexandre Borodianski, Mr. Lounguine and Yuli Dubov, based on the novel by Mr. Dubov, purports to be a true story based on the life of the notoriously corrupt billionaire businessman, Boris Berezovsky. In Tycoon , the fictional version of Berezovsky is named Platon Makovski, and his checkered career is traced from its academic beginnings in 1988 to the false reports of his assassination 15 years later. In the last shot of the film, Platon’s glaringly defiant face promises a return to Moscow to confront a competing gang of thieves from the K.G.B.

Mr. Lounguine, in an interview with The Moscow Times (Sept. 19, 2002), compares his film to The Godfather and Citizen Kane : “He’s nice and not so nice,” said the Russian director, who lives in France, speaking of his film’s protagonist. “He’s cultured, intelligent and passionate, and he destroys everything that’s around him.”

Still, I found it hard to evaluate the film because, frankly, I couldn’t understand Platon’s financial maneuvers beyond having something to do with brooms exchanged for cars, and the bribing of border custom agents. All in all, the endless treachery and justifiable paranoia of neocapitalist Russia leads to terminal narrative confusion. Yet I was enthralled by the evocation of a desperate world of storytellers who all seem to know where the bodies are buried. The sheer moral ambivalence and physical exuberance of the spectacle makes it worth seeing, if only for a glimpse at a once-feared society engulfed by chaos.

Old Man of the Sea

Baltasar Kormakur’s The Sea , from a screenplay by Mr. Kormakur and Olafur Haukur Smmonarson, based on a play by Mr. Smmonarson, was the official Icelandic Academy entry for Best Foreign-Language Film of 2002. But its roots seem to lie in the dour and chilled Scandinavian family dramas going back at least to the plays of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. In The Sea , Thordur (Gunnar Eyjolfsson), the aging owner of a fishery in a remote Icelandic coastal village, is awaiting the return of his far-flung family. From what little I know about Iceland, I imagine it to be like Hawaii-except, of course, for the climate. Both places are proverbially “in the middle of nowhere,” and yet their landscapes are so expansive that you might feel at the center of the world.

Thordur’s problem is that he wants to turn his fishing business over to his son Agust (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason). The son, however, prefers to stay in Paris on his father’s allowance, writing love songs for his French mistress, Françoise (Hélène de Fougerolles). The rest of the family is even more impossible, and by the time the ghastly family reunion has concluded, with its nude romps in the icy pools and drunken brawls, the fishery has burned down, the father and his favored son have come to blows, and the encroaching power of big business here as everywhere else continues to crowd out the small community businesses.

The film is funny and entertaining nonetheless in an Icelandic sort of way.

Endnote

Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) is being honored with a three-week, 34-film retrospective running from June 13 through July 3 at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110). Don’t miss Trouble in Paradise (1932), June 13-19. I will keep my readers posted on each week’s Lubitsch classic.