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AND NOW THE NEWS
'BRUCE ALMIGHTY' MIGHT NOT BE THE FUNNIEST FILM EVER PRODUCED, BUT IT DOES BUFFALO AND ITS STAR PROUD

You're probably going to see it. You won't mind much, either. That's because "Bruce Almighty" is probably worth seeing for one scene alone. Nevermind all the overt and covert references to life at Channel 7 news, that one scene in fact may turn out to be something of a classic in American movie comedy, one for the anthologies.

It's like this: Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey), the feature funnyguy of, yes, Buffalo's "Eyewitness News," has been railing at God (Morgan Freeman) about his lot in life. So God gives him his powers for a week, just to see if Bruce can do any better.

Bruce has, just before, suffered the final professional indignity of his life. Revered Channel 7 anchor "Steve Fineman" is retiring and the unctuous, condescending reporter "Evan Baxter" has just won Steve's anchor job, much to Bruce's dismay. Evan is played by Steve Carrell, sometimes of TV's "The Daily Show," "Watching Ellie" and overnight mail commercials.

On the first night that Evan sits in the Channel 7 anchor chair next to a beautiful co-anchor named Susan (Catherine Bell of TV's "Jag"), Bruce tries out his newfound powers by messing with Evan's face and delivery, putting a veritable explosion of tics, stutters, babbles, flubs and whoops into them. Bruce, off in a dark corner, turns Evan into a babbling idiot, in other words.

Essentially then, you've got two sublimely gifted clowns -- one with many hundreds of millions of movie box office behind him and one known only to a select few -- doing nothing but making funny faces at each other for a few minutes. It is, I tell you, pure comedy bliss.

And let the word go forth, as the scripture of film gossip might say: Anyone still propagating the notion that Jim Carrey is an ego perennially out of control should just look at the most obvious thing about that scene -- Carrey's in the shadows. It's Carrell who is, quite brilliantly, stealing all the laughs. It's not every star comic who will rejoice when the biggest laugh in an entire movie goes to the second banana.

My scorecard on "Bruce Almighty" runs like this -- a disappointing workout of an irresistible comic idea (Morgan Freeman, as God, giving his powers to Jim Carrey), one glorious comic scene, some nice Channel 7 references for us locals and lots and lots of good news for Buffalo, the city in which the film is set.

We look quite splendid, thank you, in this Hollywood fantasy of Buffalo life. But then why shouldn't we? Anyone playing the oversensitive game can work hard and still only come up with two possible reasons for civic indignation.

There's an unfortunate, needless and unfunny Polish joke in the movie's first few minutes. Our features guy Bruce, you see, is sent to a Polish family bakery where they've just made a 10-foot, 4-inch chocolate chip cookie. He interviews the family bakers, a mother and a son. Sonny is a big dumb lummox who picks his nose as soon as the camera light goes on. Diminutive Mama then explains that no matter what other people have been saying, the chocolate chips in their cookies are not rat droppings.

Welcome to Jim Carreyland, where star comics are, quite literally, sometimes known to talk out of their posteriors.

Now if I were Carrey and Co. and vehemently determined not to offend Buffalo, I might have banished all Polish jokes as successfully as the movie in fact banished all blockhead Jay Leno snow jokes. Or, failing that, I'd have neutralized it with a line of dialogue in the very next scene which is a TV news conference in which the Polish Bakery sequence is discussed. (Why not have the news director complain to beleaguered Bruce that it's just a big Polish joke? That way the movie could have had its joke, such as it is, and still wound up on the side of the angels.)

Later on, the Sabres win the Stanley Cup and the streets of Buffalo are beset by a European-style civic riot which causes a citywide power failure. You could, I suppose, take umbrage at that, too.

Why bother? For Buffalo, "Bruce Almighty" can only be a good thing, as that frequent Buffalo visitor in childhood Martha Stewart might say.

For Carrey? The results there are mixed.

He's funny enough. (Duhh, as the kids might say.) Even funnier are a boatload of marvelous special effects (my favorite was Bruce, as his first test of divine power, parting a bowl of tomato soup as if it were the Red Sea. The sudden blizzard of post-it notes, a la Mike Judge's "Office Space" wasn't bad, either.)

Otherwise, the movie isn't so hot. Which is to say that although it's funny, it's no "Liar Liar" or "The Mask," that's for sure. And it's funny in the juvenile way it was designed to be to put Carrey back into box-office heaven after "The Majestic" tanked big time. This is Carrey's big money team from "Liar Liar" and "Ace Ventura" -- director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekirk. They're friends of Carrey's and when they come together for a yukfest, they generally go to the top or over it. They will, no doubt, do well this time too.

Anyone complaining that Carrey might be better served by a better class of friend shouldn't worry.< His next film will be from a script by Charlie Kaufman of "Adaptation" and "Being John Malkovich" fame. He continues to work with some of the most talented people in movies.

I find it hard to blame Carrey, frankly, for wanting to allegorize his own significantly blessed life. He is a brilliantly talented man with looks that can make him both a very plausible Romantic lead and, when he wants, a living piece of horror comedy (who can forget Fire Marshall Bill on "In Living Color?") Nor was he anything close to an overnight success after a very rough, hardscrabble childhood in a Toronto suburb. But when success hit, it was a hurricane, the sort of thing that could unmoor anyone. It's the kind of thing that might cause a fundamentally decent and sensitive and insecure guy to start making movie comedies about God and life and blessings and stuff.

Put Morgan Freeman into the divine role and you've nailed it.

Well, in truth, that's where "Bruce Almighty" is at its absolute infantile worst. Even if you can answer "yes" to the question "Should a movie that makes a third-rate Polish joke presume to put lines about the Meaning of Life in God's mouth?," you have to shake your head at the unintentional puerility of how it comes out.

Carrey and the boys -- Shadyac and Oedekirk -- seem to be utterly oblivious to the fact that adults really do pray for things that have nothing to do with pleasure and material gain -- things like (to take just one) divine guidance.

All Bruce wants is a big job, the power to make others unhappy and put special effects into everyday life -- along with bigger breasts and more plentiful orgasms for the girlfriend he takes for granted (as does the movie take Jennifer Anniston for granted.)

In other words, Bruce's idea of God is to be a movie star or a movie director. To make a movie then where Bruce is forced to learn contentment in his job as a Channel 7 features reporter might well be deeply unpleasant bullying if you were to take "Bruce Almighty" with any seriousness whatsoever. But why bother? Just be ready to laugh.

Which you will -- not all that often, in truth, but in that one scene, very heartily and, I think, very memorably.

MOVIE REVIEW

Bruce Almighty
* * 1/2
(out of four)
Jim Carrey as Channel 7's feature funnyman, is given God-like powers by God Himself, played by Morgan Freeman. With Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carrell.

Rated PG-13, opening Friday in area theaters.
e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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