‘Evan Almighty’ is just all righty

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

Riding on a tidal wave of publicity and burdened with a budget that would sink an ark, “Evan Almighty” – the latest major film to be shot in Augusta County – quickly goes from a flood to a trickle.

And it really isn’t that bad a movie; not exactly Almighty, but at least all righty.

Movie critics came down on the modern Noah comedy like a horde of barbarians, and not even a superb cast headed by Steve Carell and Morgan Freeman could salvage what the pundits are calling a titanic shipwreck.

On the other hand, there’s the unmistakable thrill of seeing beautiful Augusta County rolled out on over 3,600 screens nationwide, along with recognizing some of our friends and neighbors in the background, and the proud old Wayne Theater in all her glory. So there’s no way I can give this film a nonpartisan review.

This sequel to “Bruce Almighty” (which had a $70 million opening weekend and brought in nearly $250 million domestically in 2003) presents a return visit to earth by God (Morgan Freeman). He wants our modern-day hero (Steve Carell), who has just been elected a congressman, to build an ark. Sounds like big water’s on the way.

So the bulk of the film centers on the problems this guy has emulating the biblical boat building pulled off by Noah. And for the most part, it’s funny. Not contemporary funny like “Borat” or “Jackass,” both of which represent the humor(?) of pain, stupidity and violence that a mostly-younger audience finds to be such a hoot. No, except for a few glaring instances, “Evan Almighty” presents a gentler, kinder kind of comedy that’s kept fired by the unique situation. It engenders chuckles, not guffaws.

The “few glaring instances,” unfortunately are huge dollops of slapstick, pratfalls and a plot copout that can be laid at the door of the director, Tom Shadyac, and the screenwriter, Steve Oedekerk. I mean, it’s OK to get a cheap laugh by having your hero bash his thumb with a wooden mallet whilst building his ark. But to repeat the same gag seven or eight times? It just ain’t that funny, Tom. And the way neo-Noah’s three young sons pitch right in to help dad build his boat – hey, where do you get teen-agers like that?

Seemed a smidge forced, along with the complete unquestioned acceptance of all those exotic animals showing up in the Susquehanna Valley. But I guess we are a pretty sophisticated bunch of folks, after all.

Several critics, those who are somewhat skeptical about the intrinsic value of humanity per se, had the feeling that the ending was something of a copout. I fear I am among their number. It was just too politically correct to suit me.

Steve Carell has a pleasant, average-man sort of aura about him – a rare cinematic attribute that reminds me of Jack Lemmon. He uses it to add a sweetness to the character of Evan Baxter that was absent in his role in “Bruce Almighty.” Perhaps, as the story would have us believe, changing careers from anchorman to politician somehow magically just makes anyone nicer. Hmm.

Lauren Graham, an actress who’s done a lot of TV, plays his typically long-suffering wife. The role is not written with a great deal of depth, so mainly she just reacts the way any woman would when her husband suddenly starts building an ark in the backyard. A little brighter in the supporting cast is John Goodman (the evil politician du jour), Wanda Sykes (as the skeptical secretary), and the dapper John Michael Higgins as Evan’s run-everything guy.

All in all, it’s mildly humorous and not nearly as bad as the dastardly critics would have you believe. And when the animals begin to show up two-by-two, it gets impressive. They had 86 animal wranglers to handle the 200-plus real critters that appear on screen (along with about 300 computer-generated entries).

Just as impressive, on screen, was the ark itself. A huge nearly-finished version was built near Crozet, with three smaller ones on sets in Hollywood. The special effects – and there are plenty of them during the 10-minute flood scene – were done by Industrial Light and Magic (the “Star Wars” people).

Augusta County is well-established as a location for major Hollywood films. “Evan Almighty” follows such movies as “Attack at West Point” (1994), “Hearts in Atlantis” (2001), and “Gods and Generals” (2003).

Meanwhile, Back at the Dixie:

If you check into room “1408,” currently first-running at the Dixie, you’ll never get a good night’s sleep. One of my favorite actors, John Cusack, stars in this adaptation of Stephen King’s creepy short story about a haunted hotel room. I’ll take ghosts over bedbugs any night.

 

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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