Typically I write these articles in the week or two prior to a films theatrical release, but I didn't realize that Evan Almighty opened yesterday. In fact it is a little past two in the morning on the 23rd as I write this, and I don't think the Friday returns have been publicized yet so I'm filing this one a little late.
Evan Almighty is a sequel to the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty, staring Jim Carrey as a man who is given all the power and responsibility of God (played by Morgan Freeman who briefly reprises his role). Not much else needs explaining here, the plot from that point forward is fairly thin with Carrey's character abusing his new found power for his own personal gain and amusement, but later finds the responsibility more than he can handle.
The film was a wide success, grossing $484 million worldwide on an $81 million dollar budget.
This time around, co-star/supporting actor Steve Carell is given the staring role and tasked by God to create another Ark, and from what I've heard of the film based on early screenings, this film follows the path forged by Bruce Almighty with a thin plot and lots of obvious jokes, but with somewhat strong religious overtones. Universal has made no attempt to hide its interest in courting large religious institutions to draw in an a captive audience of the faithful.
Evan opens to a few more screens than did Bruce, about 3600 for the former against 3500 for the latter, which should make comparisons a lot easier.
Before I examine the production staff, I first have to express great concern over the films irresponsible budget. Laden with special effects, this film should easily set a record for the most expensive comedy ever produced, with rumors circulating that production costs range anywhere from $200-250 million. That's nearly two-and-a-half times the first films cost, even at the low end of media estimates.
In fact, the runaway production saw a meltdown of sorts for director Tom Shadyac in front of studio executives during which Shadyac accused the studio skimping on the marketing campaign in retaliation for the overruns. I'd like to note that while I have no specific knowledge of what happened, other than what I've read, I find it very easy to believe that the studio did in fact cut the marketing budget significantly, but not out of petty retaliation. They did it out of self defense when saddled with an outrageously expensive movie that may turn out to be a stinker.
The worst case scenario for Evan is that it'll have to gross (worldwide) about half a billion just to break even. Best case, if it was say around $180 million, it'll need $360 million to break even. It's possible that if Evan is equally as popular as Bruce was, it'll make back its costs and Universal will have a good year. But as I said, based on early screenings, a positive reception by the public is anything but certain.
What It Has Going For It Director Tom Shadyac has returned for the sequel, giving it the advantage of having the same feel as the first film. That always plays in favor of the feature unless the director didn't do a very good job the first time around. Shadyac did alright, so he apparently earned the studios favor enough to come back and try to do it again. The writers I will address below.
Steven Carell is a known commodity, though I wonder if his recent success has been the result of his ascendancy as a legitimate comedy leading man, or if his quirky style of delivering dead-pan comedy is simply fresh to the larger audience of movie goers who will soon tire of it if he can't grow beyond it.
Until proven otherwise, I'm going to assume it is the former while I personally learn towards the latter. For now though, there's no arguing against his recent streak of success, so he brings more good mojo to the film than he does bad. If it turns out that he blew this role precisely for the reasons I've noted, make sure you remember that I'm saying here and now: this could go either way.
What It Has Against It Unfortunately, neither the studios nor directors show much respect for writers, and two of the co-writers from Bruce were jettisoned in favor bringing back Steve Oedekerk, who was one of three who wrote the original script for Bruce. Oedekerk can't seem to decide what he wants to do in life; the man has roughly an equal number of credits for writing, producing, and acting. The latter of the three concerns me, and makes me think he's an actor first , one who snuck into other projects by being a good weasel. Nothing on his resume stands out as qualifying him for going solo on a tent pole film that cost $250 million to produce - but then again, hardly anyone in the business warrants that kind of excess.
Speaking of that ridiculous budget, it is undoubtedly the most significant drawback to the production, and sadly it is the toughest to overcome. This summer has seen a ton of tent pole sequels already, Pirates 3, Spider-man 3, Shrek 3, with Potter 5, Die Hard 4 and others yet to come. They can't all make $400 million domestically - they just can't. People only have so much money to spend, especially with a slowing economy, hotter weather, and higher gas prices.
If there are must-see films this year, I fear the ones I just listed above were at the top of most peoples lists.
What It Means This is a tough call. Carell may end up drawing in a very large, and even while disappointing them, theaters wisely take peoples money *first*, so it won't really matter if they liked it or not. If they go to see Carell, the film will succeed. If they don't, the film will bomb. Universal's attempt to stir up the evangelical audience probably won't pay off as much as they'd like it to, though it may a little.
The only thing that matters right now is money. With an assumed budget of $250 million, it needs $500m to break even. It took Spider-Man probably two weeks to make that while setting all-time records along the way, and Evan Almighty isn't going to do that. It needs to stay popular for a long time, and the summer box office is just too active for that to happen.
I really wish Universal had brought in a more significant supporting cast to take some of the heat off of Carell, and not canned two of the original three writers. That crew knew what they were doing and there was absolutely no reason to break it up. Nothing Oedekerk has done impresses me and I can name a few of his scripts that really stunk. This isn't the crew that made the first film and there have been public questions over the direction of the film - overt preaching instead of good, solid, and happily pointless comedy.
Universal screwed with the formula, going with a new lead and dicing up the writing crew, all while allowing Shadyac to nearly run the studio into the ground financially. They really need this film to succeed, and I'm afraid that it isn't going to happen.
I'm calling Evan Almighty for a loss in theatrical run and after rental. It will take the #1 spot from Fantastic Four 2, but only barely - and maybe not at all, and fall off seriously after the first weekend. It will be easily knocked out of first on the following weekend when Die Hard 4 hits screens, but it may have problems of its own to worry about.