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Studio's leap of faith in `Evan'

Universal Pictures wants to honor -- not belittle -- religion in its ark-building comedy.

June 20, 2007|John Horn and Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

When Hollywood finds religion, it usually runs away -- declining to distribute "The Passion of the Christ" or playing down spiritual themes in "The Chronicles of Narnia." But on Friday, Universal Pictures will release "Evan Almighty," an overtly spiritual Noah's ark comedy squarely aimed at the nation's faithful.

In investing more than $200 million in the film's production and marketing, Universal is betting that blue-state filmmakers can once again tap into red-state values.

It's been decades since biblically grounded films -- such as Richard Burton's "The Robe" (1953) and Charlton Heston's "The Ten Commandments" (1956) -- were routine major studio fare. In recent years, religiously themed movies were either low-budget works like "The Nativity Story" or self-financed productions such as Mel Gibson's divisive "The Passion of the Christ." When the big studios did explore serious religious narratives, the price in controversy sometimes outweighed the rewards at the box office, as was the case with Universal's "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988.

If "Evan Almighty" turns into a summer hit, as several competing studio executives predict, the movie could put Hollywood back in the business of making big-budget movies that intentionally embrace sacred subjects.

"For some reason, Hollywood doesn't make this kind of movie," says Tom Shadyac, the director of both "Evan Almighty" and its racier predecessor, 2003's "Bruce Almighty," whose religious message was less palpable. "I don't know if it's out of fear. I really don't. Maybe we're not living as closely to these themes."

Christian moviegoers have been an increasingly hot target since Gibson's "Passion" grossed more than $370 million in 2004. In assembling "Evan Almighty," Universal and Shadyac endeavored to create a crowd-pleasing, but nondogmatic, parable. The goal was to appeal not only to fans of star Steve Carell -- last seen searching for a willing woman in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" -- but also liberal environmentalists and more socially conservative audiences who rarely venture into the multiplex.

Toward that end, "Evan Almighty" combines Carell's distinct physical and verbal comedy with straightforward scenes about faith. Just a few minutes into the movie, Carell's character gets on his knees and prays to God. Unlike the higher-power conversations in the George Burns' "Oh, God!" comedies from 30 years ago, it's not done purely for laughs.

"Until I actually saw that on screen, I hadn't realized how extraordinary it felt to see it," says Marc Shmuger, Universal's co-chairman.

Carell plays Evan Baxter, a television anchorman recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He has vowed to "change the world," but it's clear his campaign slogan is an empty promise. He drives a gas-guzzling Hummer, buys an outsized mansion with cabinets that are tooled from 300-year-old Brazilian hardwood and agrees to sponsor a massive land-grab bill he hasn't yet read.

As the film opens, Baxter's wife tells him she has prayed that their family (including three boys) will grow closer. Before turning into bed, Baxter gets on his knees, and, after expressing thanks for his new home and car, he calls on God for guidance. "Please help me change the world," he prays.

The next morning, Baxter's alarm clock blinks Gen 6:14 ("Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood," the passage reads), and other biblical references start coming from all directions.

God (played by Morgan Freeman) appears at Baxter's doorstep, as do truckloads of lumber and a copy of "Ark Building for Dummies." Pairs of animals start following Baxter wherever he goes, and the clean-shaven congressman quickly starts looking more and more like a hirsute Heston in "The Ten Commandments."

The film's jokes are rooted in Baxter's unwillingness to become a nail-hammering disciple. But its more serious message focuses on faith: God has called him to build an ark, and build an ark he must. "I know this sounds crazy," Baxter tells his increasingly disturbed wife, "but I really have to do this."

In marketing the film to parts of the country that Hollywood often derides as "the flyover states," Universal has to convince audiences that "Evan Almighty" seeks to honor -- rather than belittle -- religious devotion. And since the preceding film in the series, "Bruce Almighty," featured Jim Carrey's often bawdy humor, the studio must also convince audiences that the PG-rated "Evan Almighty" is safe for families.

Audience tracking surveys indicate Universal still has to work to attract that family audience, and "Evan Almighty" is competing for that crowd against Disney / Pixar's animated "Ratatouille," the tale of a young rat who dreams of being a gourmet chef, which opens June 29.

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