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CURRENT RELEASES

BRUCE ALMIGHTY In this hit-and-miss comedy, Jim Carrey, frequently playing to the rafters in what in anybody else's hands would have been a fairly restrained character, stars as Bruce Nolan, a TV reporter who's tired of fluff pieces and yearns to become the new anchorman. But instead of getting his wish, he ends up enduring the worst day of his life, leading to a tirade directed at God. Faced with this outburst, God (Morgan Freeman) pays Bruce a visit and offers him a challenge: Take charge for a while, and see if you can do a better job of overseeing the planet. If, as the saying goes, God is in the details, then that's also where to look in Bruce Almighty for some of the film's finest moments, as the throwaway bits are generally funnier than the big set pieces. Naturally, Carrey's adept (if overly exaggerated) with the comic shtick, but the quasi-serious scenes in which he expresses self-righteous anger are actually among the movie's strongest -- it's no wonder that at one point It's a Wonderful Life is shown playing on TV, because Bruce's predicament, a decent man who's been drop-kicked by life yet given the chance to envision an alternate reality, is the same one that plagued James Stewart's George Bailey. But because this is a summer popcorn flick, the movie backs away from taking Bruce to the edge -- he never flirts with the dark side, as George Bailey did. What's left is harmless, acceptable entertainment, just not the galvanizing religious experience that was within its almighty grasp. 1/2

DADDY DAY CARE There's been a lot of grousing lately about how any time Eddie Murphy appears in a family film, he's wasting the hard-edged skills that initially made him a star in such R-rated hits as 48HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop. I'd be more sympathetic to this argument had Murphy only made good R-rated flicks, but the truth is that he's far easier to take in pictures like Mulan and now Daddy Day Care than in foul-mouthed turkeys like Beverly Hills Cop II, Harlem Nights and Vampire In Brooklyn. In fact, Murphy's charming performance proves to be one of the stronger aspects of this PG-rated piffle about two marketing executives (Murphy and Jeff Garlin) who, after losing their jobs, decide to open their own day care center. The usual unimaginative touches are on view -- several flatulence bits, over-the-top comic foils (played by Anjelica Huston and Kevin Nealon), etc. -- but an acceptable number of decent gags, a sweet turn by Steve Zahn as a Daddy Day Care employee with a Star Trek obsession, and Murphy's strong rapport with his young co-stars (especially Khamani Griffin as his son) make this more enjoyable than any level-headed adult could have reasonably expected. 1/2

DOWN WITH LOVE Trying to replicate those frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies from the late 50s/early 60s was a clever idea; cross-pollinating it with the Austin Powers movies before letting it reach the screen was a terrible one. Indeed, it's the smarmy, smutty humor that single-handedly threatens to torpedo this kitschy throwback that nevertheless contains enough appealing elements to just barely overcome its fondness for awkward double entendres. Director Peyton Reed (Bring It On) and his crew certainly get the look right, from the Technicolor saturation to the lavish sets to the ab-fab costumes, and scripters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake have come up with an acceptable plotline involving a playboy-journalist (Ewan McGregor) and his attempts to tame the author (Renee Zellweger) of a best-selling pre-feminist manifesto. McGregor and Zellweger are likable in their roles, even if they're far more mannered than Hudson and Day ever were. Still, movies of this ilk were often stolen by the supporting players, and that's the case here as well, with Sarah Paulson and especially David Hyde Pierce delightful as the leads' confidantes. Had this steered clear of the juvenile gags that pop up every now and then (the split-screen phone conversation sequence is downright dreadful), it might have been closer to last year's Far From Heaven as both a homage and a deepening of vintage classics; instead, it's merely an adequate comedy with eye-popping visuals. 1/2

THE IN-LAWS While certainly no classic, The In-Laws is an enjoyable comedy that includes among its attributes a clever premise, a witty script that's packed with choice dialogue, two beautifully matched lead actors, and a supporting performer who makes off with the picture like a Bechtel bandit in the night. But enough about the 1979 version. The new In-Laws is a sorry excuse for a comedy, a movie that completely disregards all the elements that made its predecessor such a delight. Instead of Alan Arkin and Peter Falk, we get Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas, with Brooks cast as a meek podiatrist who gets caught up in the misadventures of his daughter's future father-in-law (Douglas), a CIA agent whose reckless behavior places them in numerous dire predicaments. This deadening action-comedy hybrid is neither exciting nor funny, and it further suffers from an embarrassing turn by David Suchet as a homosexual arms dealer who spends an exorbitant amount of screen time trying to get Brooks out of his pants so he can admire his "fat cobra" (Suchet is obviously meant to be this movie's scene stealer, but he's no match for the original's Richard Libertini, who was a hoot as an eccentric Latin American dictator). Forget the movie's wedding theme: On the contrary, funeral services are now being held at a multiplex near you.

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