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All wet A big budget can't keep Carell from slipping up

It may sound strange when the movie you're talking about is reputed to be the most expensive film comedy ever made (the $175 million neighborhood -- and a mind-boggling neighborhood it is, too), but you have to be indulgent and patient with "Evan Almighty."

Its first 45 minutes are, quite frankly, close to awful. That's where Steve Carell plays a Buffalo Eyewitness News anchor who is suddenly elected to Congress and drives to Virginia with his family. That's where God -- played again by Morgan Freeman -- tells him to build an ark.

Buffalo, then, is kissed goodbye before the opening credits and, believe me, the way the movie proceeds for the next 40 minutes, you'll be very glad it is.

If you remember here, Carell practically stole "Bruce Almighty" -- with Jim Carrey's cooperation and consent -- in the scene where he and Carrey, essentially, just make ridiculous faces at each other (it's amazing how primitive comedy really is). The trouble is that, after remembering it, you have to forget it because Carrey passed on this movie (for good reasons, even though he fired his agent for getting him into movies even worse), and Carell tries so hard to be funny here that he misses by a mile at least half the time.

Remember, though, that the special effects were, by far, the best thing about "Bruce Almighty" after the belly-busting Carrey/Carell funny-face-off.

So help me, once all the bad exploding hair-growth Noah jokes are over in "Evan Almighty" and the animals show up two-by-two and all the computer graphics set in, the movie perks up nicely. Maybe it's just me, but I think a huge screen full of animals is well-nigh irresistible. And the wild ride of Evan the Congressman's Ark at film's end is among those things that computer graphics are for in movies.

It feels almost churlish to wonder why no one thought of truly funny things the animal twosomes might have done -- especially since wrangling animals on movie sets is no one's idea of a lark. On the other hand, as long as you're spending a couple hundred million dollars on a movie full of CGI-animal manipulation, surely some of it could have been outrageous and cartoon-funny.

There is a definite green tinge to the plot here that requires John Goodman to scowl and bluster his way through the part Edward Arnold used to play in Frank Capra movies -- the evil corrupt congressman who wants to crush the idealistic newcomer in his most nefarious scheme. In this case, it's about a particularly grubby land grab that God, in his infinite Morgan Freemanness, has to figure out a decidedly dramatic and watery way to thwart.

Hence the ark.

So what did all the money and CGI extravagance buy?

When all is said and done, a marginal family-style winner. There are far worse things to take the kids to.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

EVAN ALMIGHTY

2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Steve Carell, Morgan Freeman and Lauren Graham

DIRECTOR: Tom Shadyac

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

RATING: PG for language.

THE LOWDOWN: Huge CGI-fest sequel to "Bruce Almighty" about a congressman from Buffalo told by God to build an ark.

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