Even I was surprised that I had yet to review Bruce Almighty (2003). It is an interesting film on many levels, particularly for an avowed Catholic film critic. In my career working for the Church, every once in a while the idea for showing a film on for whatever parish I was working with would be floated. In case you have never had to deal with putting on such an event, it is illegal for you to screen a movie to a large group for free. Of course, you can get away with it. Hollywood is a litigious community, but they likely will not notice if you put on The Passion of the Christ (2004) for your church group. It could happen, though. Further, when you are employed by Christians, there is a premium placed on honesty. To avoid any trouble, there is a list of films that your diocese, or whatever is the protestant equivalent, has licensed for these moments. While Bruce Almighty was always on these rolls, but I never got to show it. It is a shame because there are some great lessons in it, so much so that I wonder whether those making it truly understood what they were doing.
Our title character in Bruce Almighty is Bruce Nolan (Jim Carey), an aspiring reporter in Buffalo, New York. He has his eyes set on becoming the next on-set anchor, but for now he is relegated to puff pieces, like a local Polish bakery attempting to bake the largest cookie in city history. It is not the kind of material he believes will get him ahead, but he puts his heart into it. The person who fully supports his efforts is his girlfriend Grace Connelly (Jennifer Anniston). While she willingly sits through multiple viewings of his cookie story, she would also like him to focus on things important to her, like creating a scrapbook highlighting their relationship. His attention is divided because he is unsatisfied with his position, though a nice guy all the same. This comes through the next day at work when his main competition for the anchor job, Evan Baxter (Steve Carell), ridicules him for the cookie piece while he had covered a scandal in city hall. Bruce goes to his boss, Jack Baylor (Philip Baker Hall), to beg for a better opportunity to show what he can do. Bruce thinks he has this when he is sent to report on the anniversary of the boat that tours Niagara Falls. While awaiting the on-set retirement of the anchor they are pining to replace, it is announced that Evan will be taking the position. Once Bruce, who heard this over his ear piece, recovers from his shock, he has an on-camera meltdown that leads to him getting fired. Later that night at the apartment he shares with Grace, she tries to get him to be thankful to God for the blessings he does have. This is impossible for him at the moment, and he angrily leaves, eventually getting into a car accident. Before this, he had been cursing God for apparently cursing him, and in the wake of him crashing his car he yells his frustration to the sky, saying he could do a better job as the Almighty. From this point on, there are a series of messages left for him on his pager. He attempts to ignore these until the next day, after retrieving his shattered beeper from the middle of the street, he finds the same number on it. This takes him to a warehouse where Bruce meets God (Morgan Freeman). Of course, Bruce does not believe God is who He says He is, at first. There are a series of petty miracles performed, after which God tells Bruce that the mortal is being endowed with His powers, since Bruce thinks he can do a better job. Still unsure, Bruce leaves, but finds that he can do things by thinking of them that are impossible for any other human. As it finally sinks in what has happened, Bruce decides to “right a number of wrongs,” which means helping himself. The biggest thing is getting his job back, which he does by uncovering the location of the long dead labor boss Jimmy Hoffa. He also messes with Evan while his former rival is on-air, making him mess up his lines. These efforts bring him the coveted spot, which he announces to Grace at a fancy dinner where she is expecting him to propose. While Bruce has been aggrandizing himself, there has been one key function of God he has been ignoring, and that is answering prayers. In the middle of Grace’s hurt over the lack of a proposal, the prayers become more insistent, like a roaring crowd. God comes along and tells Bruce that if he continues to shirk this responsibility, they will only grow louder. Back home, Bruce comes up with an email system for dealing with the supplicants, but even that fails to make a significant dent in the number. In frustration, he gives out a mass “yes” reply to all of them and moves on with his life. The thing he moves onto is a party thrown by the station to celebrate his promotion. Grace, who is late in coming, finds Bruce kissing his co-anchor, Susan Ortega (Catherine Bell), and leaves in disgust. Bruce tries everything in his power to get her to forgive him, but there is one thing that he cannot do, and that is affect free will. Further, the fact that he had granted everyone’s prayers is beginning to cause problems in society, leading to a riot that disrupts his first-time anchoring. Saddened, he takes to the street and is hit by a truck. When he goes to meet God, this time close to death, he realizes how selfish he has been. This is symbolized by when God asks Bruce if he wants Grace to come back to him. Bruce responds saying that he only wants her to be happy. He then wakes up in the hospital with a concerned Grace visiting him. We close with a hobbled Bruce doing a report on a blood drive, showing off his new fiancée Grace.
There is so much to say about Bruce Almighty that I scarcely know where to start. There are many points that are consistent with Christian teaching, and a few that do not match up. As a Catholic, I wish that the so-called prayer beads that pop up throughout as a reminder of the importance of communicating with God had been a Rosary. I do not know of any other Christian sect that has a similar item. Of the many marks on the plus side, there is the discussion of free will. It is a concept that has occupied the thoughts of believers and non-believers for centuries. In moments of despair, people often wonder why they have it at all, thinking that God will punish whatever action they do. Would it not be easier if He just came down and told us what to do? Actually, God does give us nudges on the right path. Yet, as God points out in the movie, most people prefer to live in the dark where they cannot see the signs He so often sends us. My favorite part regarding free will is when Bruce asks why he cannot mess with a person’s freedom of choice. God responds that he can ask, and that is the beauty of it. I love this because while it might seem cryptic, it actually speaks to the true heart of free will. You can ask God about the precious freedom He grants you. The trick is understanding that the best choice you can make is by surrendering to His will. This is hardest of all, and the biggest lesson in the film. We do not know what is ultimately best for us, let alone have the capacity to be God. Bruce’s desire to essentially replace God is representative of all of us who have ever been so fed up with our existence that we wonder if God is real. It is an idea as old as the Bible itself. The Israelites of the Old Testament were always quick to forget all God had done for them, and seek answers elsewhere. As has been behind everything that has been discussed to this point, and what Bruce comes to accept, it is that God is always present in our lives. In the film, He is the homeless person holding up signs. He also tells Bruce that the miracles we all want so desperately are to be had in the kind actions we do for one another. People want God to be the kind of deity that parts seas and shakes mountains. But God works in smaller ways, too, that become that much more significant when you understand them from the right perspective.
I could write a much longer review of Bruce Almighty with all the great things it has to say about practicing the faith, but I am already pushing my typical length. I will say one final thing that is also mentioned in the film, and another reason why I wonder if those who made it were cognizant of the true meaning of what they were doing. The biggest thing that God wants of us is a relationship. Bruce acts annoyed by this because while he is filling big shoes, he is not really God. None of us can be because there is only One. And that One wants you to know Him, which is why we pray. This is best seen towards the end when Grace (note the name) is speaking to God about Bruce. God knows what we want before we ask, but He still wants us to ask all the same because that is what people do in a healthy relationship. If more people in this world did that, think of how much better it would be.