“Be fruitful and … I don’t know, do long division or something!” imparts Jim Carrey’s Bruce Nolan, drunk off divine power, as he reaches a peak of self-serving success in Bruce Almighty. It’s a joke emblematic of the film’s approach to profaning the sacred. Start by dipping a toe into scripture, then swiftly swerve.
Two decades ago, Bruce Almighty owned the Memorial Day weekend box office on its way to becoming the fifth-highest grosser of 2003. Today, the legacy left behind is murky and defined by how singular a sensation it was. Despite years of regular play on cable and HBO, it still stands as a unicorn in American mainstream moviegoing. No film has attempted such an audacious addressing of spiritual and secular audiences with faith-based content since.
Look at just about any aggregator of taste – Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, Letterboxd – and maybe people are just mixed on it. The film uses Carrey’s outrageous antics as the selling point, and Bruce Almighty presages the star turning away from more outlandish ‘90s works like Ace Ventura or Dumb and Dumber. But without the thematic heft of The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it might be a bit hard to pinpoint the tone of this silly-cum-somber tale of a sad sack news anchor suddenly imbued with the powers of God.
The film deserves more credit for its cleverness, not just because it wields a wicked wit when it comes to touting and tweaking Biblical passages. Bruce Almighty begins with the high concept of an omnipotent God endowing his powers in an average man, yet the beauty quickly gives way to burden as Bruce comes to conceptualize the divine as something beyond a celestial genie. Where most films would sanctimoniously moralize, it instead takes an earnestly ecumenical approach to find the small ways in which normal people can improve the world by reflecting self-sacrificing grace.
Other movies have tackled subjects like the nature of God or what it means to practice faith authentically, but none have done so in quite the way that Bruce Almighty did. It’s rare to see a film with such a bone-deep understanding of religion with an interest beyond preaching to the converted. Religious viewers willing to stomach a little blasphemy were then treated to a sincere investigation of what it means to believe in a contemporary world. The devious and the devout alike can come together in cinematic communion here.
But – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Hollywood learned either the wrong lesson, or no lesson at all, from Bruce Almighty’s success. The very next year, the religious right mobilized to make The Passion of the Christ a whopping $370 million domestic hit – and the explicit Christian allegories of The Chronicles of Narnia series also made for big business. The Passion effect was already on display in Evan Almighty, the 2007 spinoff of Bruce Almighty that elevated Steve Carell’s supporting character Evan Baxter to lead status following his breakout on TV’s The Office. The PG rating alone signified the series’ neutering to make the jokes even safer for pearl-clutching sensibilities.
But even a subtle change such as giving the Baxter family an established prayer practice makes a big difference. Unlike Bruce’s heathen hedonism, Evan’s footing in religion serves as a powerful signal that this is entertainment for the in-group about the in-group. The nature of Morgan Freeman’s God also shifts from being a sassy sage into something more like an exacting taskmaster. Evan Almighty paints a far less welcoming picture of the immovable mover. Here, God demands obedience and acquiescence to his will to reap any rewards.
Turns out there was more interest in doubling down on serving a Christian audience exactly what they wanted by confirming their existing belief structure. Creating a work like Bruce Almighty that expanded the audience proved a bit trickier to execute. It’s an antidote to the PureFlix-ification of spiritual storytelling by extending an open hand to contemplate the majesties and mysteries of God.
Like many other things in America, the film’s vision for inclusive, inquisitive faith-focused filmmaking fell victim to the country’s ideological polarization in the digital media era. Directors like Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick still explore the mysteries of the divine in their late period, yet studios market these works toward a smaller pool of self-selecting skeptics. And even when looking past the cultural resentment-fueled likes of God’s Not Dead and its ilk, mainstream Christian entertainment like Heaven Is for Real shows no interest in reaching across the aisle to bring new people into the pews.
The enduring legacy of Bruce Almighty lives on most mightily not in the culture but in its creators. Its smashing success represents an unlikely box office zenith for star Jim Carrey and director Tom Shadyac alike, and it seems to have played a part in dislodging some divine discontent for the duo, both of whom have drifted further from Hollywood materialism and embraced searching for the sublime.
Shadyac’s 2011 documentary I Am, a TheSecret-esque pseudo-scientific exploration of a unified theory behind an ailing world, feels like a cry for help amidst his struggles with post-concussion syndrome. Carrey’s slippery relationship with spirituality, however, proves much tougher to pin down. The actor expounded upon some of his New Age beliefs in the 2017 documentary Jim and Andy, positing “I wonder what would happen if I decided to just … be Jesus” before removing his microphone at the end of his interview. If only he and Hollywood could remember that we already know how to answer that question.