Jim Carrey already learned his lessons from God. Now it’s Steve Carell’s turn.
A bit player in the 2003 hit “Bruce Almighty,” Carell leaped to stardom in the interim, giving the filmmakers a ready-made stand-in when Carrey decided not to return for what became the sequel “Evan Almighty,” opening Friday.
It’s not uncommon for studios to resurrect a franchise with new actors, trying to wring a few more dollars out of an idea even if the original stars don’t return.
With a budget that climbed to $175 million, a colossal sum for a comedy, “Evan Almighty” was not just a quick knockoff. The movie is a centerpiece of distributor Universal’s summer lineup, and the studio needs it to be a strong successor to “Bruce Almighty,” which took in $242.7 million domestically.
Does Carell feel the weight of that $175 million budget on his shoulders?
“Not really. There’s nothing I can do about it,” Carell said. “My job was done when I wrapped the movie. I feel like I did the best that I could do and brought everything I could as a performer, but it’s completely out of my hands. I hope people like it, I hope people go to see it. But I guess I’ve learned there’s no stock in being neurotic about things I have no control over.”
One of the biggest comedy hits ever, “Bruce Almighty” starred Carrey as a Buffalo TV reporter whose constant grousing prompts God (Morgan Freeman) to turn his powers over to this mortal malcontent to see if he can do a better job running things.
Carrey’s Bruce initially uses his supreme powers for mischief, including turning rival Evan (Carell), his TV station’s news anchor, into a babbling idiot during a live broadcast.
It was a scene-stealing moment for Carell, who shot to celebrity afterward as star of TV’s “The Office” and the 2005 hit comedy “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Carell also co-starred in last year’s acclaimed “Little Miss Sunshine” and provided one of the voices in the animated hit “Over the Hedge.” This fall, he stars in the comedy “Dan in Real Life” and has the lead as agent Maxwell Smart in next summer’s “Get Smart.”
“We felt like we just caught lightning in a bottle in the way Steve’s star was rising. His own trajectory in the world coincided neatly with where we are today, so we got the greatest comedian we could have dreamed of having in our summer movie,” said Michael Bostick, a producer of “Evan Almighty.”
“The stars kind of lined up. This just felt like a good idea. It felt right, given the character he had created in ‘Bruce.’ ”
In “Evan Almighty,” Carell’s character has been newly elected to Congress and moves to suburban Virginia with his family. God (Freeman again) pays him a visit, telling Evan he has to build an ark, with the almighty delivering tools and construction materials along with an instruction book, “Ark Building for Dummies.”
As animals of all sorts start following him around two by two, Evan realizes his calling is for real and sets to work on the ark with a passion.
Small as Carell’s part in “Bruce Almighty” had been, he grabbed the audience’s attention, said Lauren Graham, who plays his wife in “Evan Almighty.”
“Steve really popped out of it, so it made total sense that they could do some sort of spinoff around that character,” Graham said.
“It would be strange if it was Steve playing the Jim Carrey part, but it’s not strange at all when they spin someone off. It happens in TV all the time. It just hasn’t happened in features that much.”
“I can’t think of another situation where that happened, where a person who had a small part in a big movie was able to pull off a sequel,” said “Evan Almighty” co-star Wanda Sykes, who plays a congressional aide to Carell. “Although his part was pretty small in ‘Bruce Almighty,’ it was so memorable. And also, he’s a big star. He’s on fire. Everyone loves him and he deserves it. I think people are going to stay with it.”
The role in the new movie had been written for Carrey, who generally is not a fan of reprising parts. When Carrey declined, the filmmakers cast about for another comic actor who could fill his shoes. Among the ideas considered was bumping up Jennifer Aniston, who played Carrey’s girlfriend in “Bruce Almighty,” to lead status in the sequel, Bostick said.
Tom Shadyac, director of both movies, settled on Carell, who said he never would have imagined when he did his small bit in “Bruce Almighty” that he would be elevated to starring in the sequel.
“I would have thought they were crazy,” Carell said. “Even when Tom Shadyac came and wanted to speak to me, I thought he was talking about a sequel starring Jim Carrey in which I would play the idiot thorn in his side. Then when he said, ‘No, we’re thinking about you as the main character,’ I said yes immediately.”
Unlike “Bruce Almighty,” which had a PG-13 rating, the PG-rated “Evan Almighty” is a family film, loaded with cute animals and slapstick sight gags. That may improve its chances at the box office, broadening the potential audience to include young children along with adults who liked “Bruce Almighty.”
The filmmakers now are considering whether they can carry on the franchise with a new star each time as God’s chosen one.
“Really, the common thread is Morgan Freeman as God. It’s a different set of lessons learned each time,” Carell said. “I would presume if there is a third one, I would not be called upon again, unless of course, Evan was hit in the head and forgot every lesson he learned.”