Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Evan Alrighty

I love blogging! I have so many recent movies/films I need to review on here, but first, I have a couple really random ones that I did during the year. The first is Evan Almighty. Yes, I actually paid money to see it in a theater. I love Steve Carell and wanted to contribute my valuable money to a worthy recipient. Also, I had time to kill while waiting for a midnight screening of Ratatouille. It's a bit long and impassioned for a pretty silly movie, but that's just me and how I write. :)

I love Steve Carell. For my money, he’s the funniest, most talented person working on television. He effortlessly combines exaggerated, wildly hilarious physical shtick (think Jim Carrey before he started seeking Oscars) with heartbreaking subtlety and emotional depth weekly on The Office. That being said, perhaps I was already biased when approaching Evan Almighty. I certainly went into it with an open mind, despite the scathing criticism hitherto heaped upon the movie. But my enjoyment of the movie extends way beyond bias.

In Evan Almighty, directed by Tom Shadyac, Carell is Evan Baxter, a reprisal of his scene-stealing role in 2003’s Jim Carrey-helmed Bruce Almighty. Carell is a natural choice to fill Carrey’s hammy shoes. The sequel finds Evan, somewhat inexplicably, as a newly-elected Congressman. His new career, of course, leaves him no time for family, specifically his wife Joan (the ever-luminous Lauren Graham of TV’s Gilmore Girls) and three sons. Immediately, he is presented with the opportunity to align himself politically with the powerful and obviously shady Congressman Long, played with snarling, squinty glee by John Goodman. Long needs support on a bill that will allow development on national parks. Let me guess – Long is a Republican, right?

Evan’s political agenda is simple – he wants to change the world. If that means signing off on Long’s plans, so be it. But will Evan really sell out his principles like that? Of course not, this is a family film! And before he has a chance to get his hands dirty, God (a white-clad, beaming, charming, as-noble-as-can-be Morgan Freeman) appears to Evan and tells him to build an ark for the impending flood. Naturally, Evan totally dismisses it at first, until he begins seeing “Gen 6:14” everywhere (I’ll let you look up that Bible verse). Pairs of animals start following him around. He starts sporting a beard that grows right back when he tries to shave. Rita (Wanda Sykes), a member of his staff, asks him, “Why do you sound like Evan but look like a Bee Gee?” He eventually ends up with long, white flowing hair and the most biblical of beards. As evidenced by his cringingly hysterical waxing scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, no one does hair comedy better than Carell.

Evan’s antics seem crazy, he is ostracized and ridiculed, and Joan and the boys move out after he makes a fool out of himself on television during an important Congressional hearing. All he has left is himself, and he valiantly pushes on with the ark, assisted by some animals. Prodded by God, Joan returns with the boys to stand by Evan. And, wouldn't you know it, there IS a flood. I promise that’s not spoiling anything. The real surprise is the source of the flood, a rather clever plot twist. But enough of the plot. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve basically seen the whole movie anyway. And besides, the plot isn’t the point of this movie.

Before I get all philosophical, let me get some other thoughts out of the way (this in no way diminishes their significance). All of the animals on the ark are real, which ballooned the budget but provides a real sense of awe-inspiring authenticity, like being at the world’s biggest zoo. Plus, it must have made for one hell of an entertaining set. The special effects are pretty stellar, contrary to the opinion of the movie’s naysayers. The flood was believable to me, and the fact that they actually built that ark is beyond impressive. The performances are surprisingly good. John Michael Higgins and Wanda Sykes, despite the one-dimensionality of their characters, deliver consistent laughs. Jonah Hill, the sycophantic junior staff member who worships Evan, is a riot and steals every scene he’s in, which is a huge compliment considering the talented cast. And Lauren Graham, critically-acclaimed for her brilliant work on Gilmore Girls for seven seasons (and deservedly so), is sweet, funny, and sincere as his wife. Lauren Graham is a special actress who always shines, regardless of the material she’s given. Steve Carell is, forgive the pun, a revelation as Evan Baxter. A lesser actor would have overdone the theatricality of the part and scoffed at the emotional content. Carell never condescends to the material, and he is earnest and genuine every second. Bruce Almighty didn’t really have an emotional center, but Carell is the heart of this movie. You would be hard-pressed to find a more likeable actor and human being.

All right, it's not a great movie, or even very good, but it's good. I liked it. It made me feel happy. It certainly doesn't break any new ground in cinema. I know it's pretty standard, cliché family filmmaking. But it entertained me, and sometimes that's enough to make it work. I guess I feel the need to rationalize, and I'm not sure why.

At its core, Evan Almighty is about family, self-discovery, and finding your place in the world. And yes, it is heavily religious, but in a totally inoffensive way. Tom Shadyac has been making inoffensive comedies, some more overtly religious than others, for years, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a market for it. I admit that I’m very cynical, and I admire a movie that can melt my jaded and decidedly unreligious heart like this one did. Granted, Evan Almighty is sappy, but I never felt insulted by the depiction of religion, unlike the outrage I experienced watching Black Snake Moan. Just a few days before seeing Evan Almighty, I watched a mind-blowing documentary entitled Hell House, about a group of Pentecostal Christians who run a haunted house every Halloween season. But this is not just any ordinary haunted house. In their warped version, visitors witness poorly-acted scenes of what they consider mortal sins that will doom you to Hell should you choose not to accept Jesus. Apparently, if you’re a homosexual serial killer, all you have to do is repent at the very last second before death and invite Jesus into your life. Then it’s all water under the bridge.

Some of the gravest offenses, according to the Pentecostals operating Hell House, include: domestic violence, homosexuality, rape, suicide, and abortion. Oh, and going to raves. One appalling scene takes place in a hospital with a gay man dying of AIDS and a girl who took RU-486 to give herself an abortion. She is wheeled in on a gurney, moaning, her legs spread wide, with blood soaking her clothed genital region. It’s bloodier than a Sam Peckinpah film. It is ridiculously graphic and utterly inexcusable. She repents, but of course, the homosexual person forsakes God. This is the most upsetting film I have ever seen, even more so because this actually happens. These monsters who perpetuate lies and force their misguided and idiotic viewpoints down the throats of every “heathen” they meet actually exist. They absurdly and wrongly claim they are not employing guilt trips or trying to instill fear. Their religion is based on hate. If there is a God, I’m positive that this is not what he or she had in mind.

Evan Almighty doesn’t try to convert anyone. It doesn’t pressure you or guilt trip you. Sure, it has a religious foundation, but so do most stories out there in some respect. It is not about the corruption of organized religion. It is about being a decent human being. In fact, it celebrates what religion is supposed to be – community, peace, respect (for the earth and every living thing on it), and compassion. I think there’s something beautiful about that. While I am still ultimately a cynic, especially concerning religion, I am not ashamed to embrace Evan’s warm message. Compare the unflinching optimism in Evan Almighty with the bleak reality presented in Hell House or Jesus Camp. I dare you to find something wrong with Evan on a spiritual or moral level.

Rating: **1/2 (out of 5) - I still recommend it, even though I guess I don't feel as strongly about the actual movie as a movie in retrospect as I do about the people involved and its intentions and message.

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