Thursday, June 21, 2007

What Floats Your Boat?

By Graham H. Moes
Graybrook Film Critic

If environmentalism is the religion of liberals -- complete with end-times prophecies, carbon offset indulgences for “sins” and Al Gore’s scriptures on hotel nightstands -- the Church of Green can now boast its own Noah account in Evan Almighty.

The crazy thing is, many broad-minded Christians can lay claim to Universal's biblical comic epic too.

Yes, in terms of its worldview, Evan Almighty might be the oddest bird caught on film since that seagull Randy Johnson obliterated with a fastball a few years ago.

On the one hand, it’s a by-the-numbers, mostly liberal message movie that elevates urban sprawl to the 8th Deadly Sin. Think "Jonah and the Whale" re-told as "Free Willy."

On the other hand, it’s predicated on the freestanding premise God is real, loves His creatures and demands their service in a universe He fully controls.

Steve Carell (The Office, 40 Year Old Virgin) reprises his supporting role as news anchor Evan Baxter from Bruce Almighty. Recently elected to congress on a "change the world" slogan, Evan moves into a massive new housing development for the super rich in Virginia with his wife Joan (Joan of ARK, get it?) and three sons.

Overwhelmed by the task, he prays God will show him how to make good on his campaign promise. In the film's funniest sequence, God shows up -- again and again and again -- to hammer home His reply that Evan is to hammer up a massive ark, on-load the animals He'll send, and prepare for a second flood intended to wipe the once pristine valley clean of the encroaching works of man.

In a plot lifted directly from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the increasingly driven neo-Noah throws himself into the mission from God, to the horror of his coworkers, ridicule of his constituents and abandonment by his wife.

The subplot, lifted directly from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, involves Evan being used by a senior congressman to launch a bill allowing residential construction in our national parks.

When it works, which if more often than not, the film has Steve Carell to thank.

The endearing dopiness that drives his Office persona powers the subplot -- essentially a series of sequences in which he morphs from GQ congressman to Geico Caveman to Gandalf the Burlap in a matter of days, all the while dodging all creatures great and small as they track him two-by-two around the beltway.

(The very thought of Jim Carrey hamming it up past the punchline in this role makes me cringe.)

Carell's other mode, the pie-eyed earnestness that barely salvaged 40 Year Old Virgin, delivers the A-storyline, a funny, family friendly, cynicism-free affair that almost makes Leave it to Beaver seem sordid in comparison.

This movie is clearly post-Passion of the Christ. The questionable premise and morally iffy gags that put Bruce Almighty beyond the reach of many Christians has been replaced by a genuine attempt at affirming our faith.

That said, it's largely the shiny happy "seeker sensitive" version of Christianity presented. Easy on the fire and brimstone, extra rainbow please.

God all but apologizes for the big misunderstanding last time he flooded earth. Forget all that "wrath" talk. Really it was all about bringing folks closer: Noah's family coming together on a nautical family project, the animals arriving all two-by-two and cozy-like, etc.

"Ark," in fact, turns out to be an acronym for "Act of Random Kindness."

Nor, it seems, is Jehovah concerned for His glory first and foremost. He does everything because He loves us and wants us to be in communion with Him. That happens to be a major debate in the church today, actually. And in this respect, Evan Almighty is more Joel Osteen than St. Augustine.

Then again, Christians of every stripe will warm to the unprecedented depiction of a man standing before the unbelieving world, compelled by God to play the holy fool. Much like the original Noah must have done. Sure, Paul Scofield did it in 1966's A Man for All Seasons, but here, smack dab in the middle of a 2007 summer blockbuster comedy? Fairly unusual.

I'll leave it at that. As comedy, it has its moments despite running out of gas a bit early. As spectacle, it delivers a nice ride in the third act. (Can't wait to see a historical epic on the original Noah now.) As theology... Eh. Not so much.

Bottom line, how this film floats your boat will depend on the degree to which you hold your political and doctrinal standards close. Either way, the debate to come as this one hits screens should be interesting.