Trembling Before God
by Nathan Kosub
Dir. Tom Shadyac, U.S., Universal
If every administration gets the movie it deserves, Evan Almighty is the most appropriate flop for the long decline of this worst of White Houses. Not content to be merely the costliest waste of an animal cast in movie history, the film is more contemptuous of the American public than even Rupert Murdoch could imagine. Its pervasive cynicism not only damages for the foreseeable future the reputations of its stars (especially the finally unbearable Beaker-eyed Muppet of Daily Shows past, Steve Carell) but refutes with cutting finality every myth of a leftist Hollywood that the mainstream media can muster. The gulf here between the possibilities of the American people and the view of this country from on high is only made worse by the underlying fallacy that it takes a man of God to really change the United States government, to silence the fat shrews who walk our streets and the baby-faced journalists who howl in unbelieving protest through their tasks as democracy’s middlemen. In Evan Almighty, Pottersville is destroyed to make way, not for better housing or honest labor for all of George Bailey’s friends, but a country without people at all, a starting over warped horribly through the lens of religious revelation, made pure by the sacrifice of a nation to the wolves of irreparable smallness.
And what is the mighty parable handed down from a cackling God (Morgan Freeman)? That a man, Evan Baxter (Carell)—an average weatherman just elected to Congress—is asked to build an ark and prepare for a great flood (yes, the flood has a date: September 22). Baxter is summarily recruited by corrupt politician Congressman Long (John Goodman) to endorse a new bill promoting unchecked commercial growth in the woods of Virginia. Long is jowly and humorless and too good a backroom negotiator (too good a politician, in other words) to eventually achieve the terrible ends he desires.
Change is wrought by outsiders, the movie says, by religious men on the periphery of political life who know nothing of compromise or debate, but say their piece with dramatic flourish and a physical transformation more reminiscent of tanks rolling up Pennsylvania Avenue than anything like an ugly democracy. Do we still need that lesson in politics? To hear that it was Lyndon Johnson, the insider, who made the great possibilities of Kennedy’s idealism law? That the system is a slow compromise against rot like this, against the despondency of an electorate taught to think of so much willful Republican destruction as a cruel inevitability?
Apparently so. Baxter builds his ark, the neighbors laugh, and his family leaves him. God appears every now and again to heckle his disciple for cheap laughs, but in the end, the boat is built, the valley floods, and Evan and so many nonbelievers float dramatically on roiling tides straight to the halls of Congress to testify in favor of… something. What exactly Evan Almighty tries to say from its facile soapbox is as foggy as the CGI, and not only is it a bad story, it’s a pointedly tedious and nasty one. God joins in on the Pledge of Allegiance during a Congressional hearing: “one nation under me,” he smirks, and if Budweiser can bring back John Wayne and The Sopranos can revive Nancy Marchand, why couldn’t Joe McCarthy be around to toast this long-delayed ascension? The ark of God isn’t a metaphor, but an acronym for “acts of random kindness.” It’s a gimmick and, even better, one that God doesn’t believe. His best trick is refilling wife Lauren Graham’s basket of chicken tenders after telling her that suffering is what makes life enjoyable in the end.
Almost certainly, no one in Evan Almighty suffers quite like Graham. The actress reminded us how young 40 is with her sweet, absurd Santa Claus fetish in Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa. As Evan’s doubting wife Joan, Graham worries about appearances, leaves her husband when he grows a beard, eats more when she’s depressed, and comes back to the fold for no reason at all, except maybe for the look of familial solidarity in the end.
Her marriage is sexless, of course. The bed that Joan and Evan share barely inspires a kiss before Joan falls asleep and Evan watches television. The three boys they raise were probably delivered by the same stork that stocked a whole generation of Nazi youth, and by the time God unveils His eleventh commandment to the pulse of C + C Music Factory, you wonder if it’s possible that this is the worst movie you have ever seen.
It’s all right-wing propaganda, anyway: Evan’s beard is compared to Abraham Lincoln’s, and someone mentions in passing that Evan ran on a platform of, among other things, lowering taxes. It’s odd, at first, that corrupt Congressman Long is responsible for a slimy land deal that constructs an unsafe dam, but it isn’t environmentalism that Evan embraces as much as the isolationism of rural militias. There is no real sacrifice for Evan along the way—God supplies the parts, the animals, and the directions—and the people who don’t believe him aren’t worth missing.
Even generously, the outlook is essentially the Ducks Unlimited model taken to its natural extremes: private groups as wards of huge swaths of land, preserving the fragile ecosystems therein not for mankind in general, which would surely trample and squander it, but for the appreciative few who understand the privilege of good hunting on a pretty lake and can pay top dollar for that rarified solitude. In the film’s final scene, the Baxters rush to the top of a verdant Virginia hill. God is there, beneath a tree, but not for long, and all around them the American wilderness lolls in the soft haze of warm mornings. Of course it ends with The Sound of Music, right on the cusp of a fascist state and the cruel neutrality of unthinking, resplendent Nature.
Has it really been so long since director Tom Shadyac’s first feature film starring animals, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? The animal kingdom did its best there, for peanuts I’m sure. Birds flock, dolphins play football, and sex transpires beside the bobbing heads of Ace’s pets, in rhythm with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Ace makes fun of his animal friends, says he loves them only “if it’s cold enough,” and the animals seem in on the joke. Sex doesn’t happen at all in Evan Almighty, and the animals don’t have much to do but stare. The ark’s inhabitants disappear altogether for that last scene, leaving the Baxter family alone on their wilderness picnic. They eat sandwiches from Ziploc bags and smile as if it’s the most unnatural expression in the world. They’re back at the beginning, lords of their endless Virginia estates, oblivious to the world and everything that makes it worthwhile.