"Bruce Almighty": Film Portrays God as "Everyman"
- 2003 5 May
LOS ANGELES -- The previews for "Bruce Almighty," a Universal Pictures release opening nationwide Friday (May 23), ask the viewer to ponder a few theological questions. If you could be God for one week, what would you do? Who would you help? How would you handle the most powerful responsibility?
Bruce Nolan, played by the actor Jim Carrey, confronts those challenges in the new comedy.
In the movie, Bruce suffers a series of mishaps and curses God (the stately Morgan Freeman), so the Almighty challenges him to take on his job and run things better. For a while, Bruce gleefully indulges in his newfound powers (he causes girlfriend Jennifer Aniston's breasts to enlarge) until things get out of hand.
"Bruce Almighty" is directed by Tom Shadyac, who previously teamed up with Carrey on "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "Liar Liar." The movie is rated PG-13 for language, sexual content and some crude humor.
The idea of portraying God as Everyman is nothing new. Once upon a time, Hollywood depicted God as a mere booming, unreachable voice, as in "The Ten Commandments" (1956). But with today's broader theology, God has become more accessible and down-to-earth. In 1977, George Burns donned a fishing cap and red plaid shirt to play the folksy divine hero of "Oh, God!" More recently, the Almighty appeared as Canadian pop singer Alanis Morissette in "Dogma" (1999).
But by endowing a human being with God's power and couching it as a comedy, Hollywood might be gambling with some delicate theological issues.
"You're in trouble to begin with when you're using a visual medium to display a spiritual reality," says the Rev. Richard Blake, co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College and movie reviewer for the Jesuit magazine America. "If you're putting it in terms of a comedy and gimmicks, the possibility of sinking to vulgarity becomes enormous. It's a minefield that you're walking into."
Blake says it's common to try to anthropomorphize God and approach a deity from a cultural tradition. But when Hollywood deconstructs a tradition -- like portraying God as a woman or as African-American -- it can be radically different from Western experience.
"If God is (the being described by poet) John Milton, which seems to dominate so much of Western thinking, then these images might be upsetting," Blake says.
In "Bruce Almighty," God's power through Jim Carrey (whose initials are appropriately JC) displays a kind of mischievous adolescent quality. Bruce, for example, teaches his pet dog how to use the toilet and actually walks on water. In a sense, Bruce becomes God, and his zaniness is antithetical to the tradition of a more solemn deity.
Bruce's use, or some would say abuse, of God's power has already offended a few conservative Christian groups. A newsletter from Bob Jones University labeled the movie "blasphemous," and many Christians have expressed their disapproval on the popular MSN Entertainment Web site. In a recent preview of "Bruce Almighty," New York Newsday warned, "Funny movies with God and/or angels can get pretty sticky."
Universal is no stranger to religious controversy. The studio's release of "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988 sparked pickets and protests -- some tinged with anti-Semitism -- from Christian groups across the nation.
Aware that they're dealing with a potentially hot-button subject, Universal has hired Grace Hill Media, a public relations firm that promotes mainstream movies to the religious press. Grace Hill's outreach Web site, MovieMission.com, says its mission is "to change Hollywood forever" by encouraging Christians to vote with their pocketbook for movies they find appealing.
"It would appear that (Universal) is trying to head off criticism of the film," says J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute of the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., and an authority on Protestant religious movements. "There are people who would look at the film and say, like when Carrey causes a woman's dress to fly up, it's immoral."
But Melton points out that Hollywood is also trying to build a niche market by targeting religious-themed movies to Christian audiences.
"This kind of movie has possibilities of a great deal of theological comment," he explains. "I suspect what the movie is driving at is a moral reformation of its main character. If one wanted to sell it to an evangelical Christian audience, that would build the audience."
But Ted Baehr, head of the independent Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher of Movieguide, is more skeptical about the studio's attempt to reach out to the Christian community.
"I think that the church has to be wary of becoming a lap dog for Hollywood," he says. "Hollywood should recognize that the Christian and Jewish communities are viable communities and treat them decently. My concern is that Hollywood would see that this is a market they can manipulate."