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THE MOVIE MASOCHIST: The $175 million bumper sticker

Big summer movies, in a way, feel like election season. Presidential campaigns and movie sequels are expensive undertakings, so there's a strong incentive to mold a product that audiences or voters can agree on, if only to settle the question about who to elect or what movie to see.

That's why both presidential candidates and summer movies usually deliver a lot of expensive nothing. Anything that smacks of controversy, attitude, opinion or true individuality has been filtered out for the sake of snaring the biggest demographic.

In that sense, "Evan Almighty" feels like a movie that has slogged through a long primary season to emerge as a safe blockbuster. With a budget somewhere in the area of $175 million, it has outspent most of its rivals, gained name recognition and shown itself to be very, very pious.

That swollen budget probably makes "Evan Almighty" the most expensive comedy in movie history, as well as the costliest Sunday school lesson, one that teaches the shockingly bold lesson that people should be nice to one another.

The film begins with Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell, funny but manacled by the script) getting elected to Congress and leaving his TV anchor job for Washington, D.C. He moves his idealized, uncomplaining family into a big house in the Virginia suburbs and revels in his new status as a budding political bigwig. Then God (Morgan Freeman) appears and tells Evan to build an ark because an enormous flood is coming. After being surprised, irritated and finally worn down by the cheerful God, Evan relents and begins working on the big boat.

Evan's role as a modern-day Noah leads to scenes in which animals, some computer-generated, follow him around. He keeps growing a big, bushy beard even though he continually tries to shave it off. All of this embarrasses him, but the fact that a massive, God-induced flood would wipe out most of the world, as it does in the Bible, doesn't seem to occur to Evan - he's mostly worried about losing his job.

None of the other characters see what's right in front of them, either. The fact that animals of all kinds follow Evan around doesn't alarm most people. They still think it's Evan just being a kook. That's not a case of characters being obtuse for the sake of humor - that's a weird lapse in logic that shows how sloppy the script is. Even when someone thinks Evan is insane - and a lot of the movie's characters do - no one seems to think it's too strange that lions, baboons, crocodiles, bears and other animals can all quietly occupy the same suburban lot without creating a bloodbath.

When the big flood finally comes, it's because a dam breaks and sends a torrent of water over Evan's neighborhood, propelling his ark right into Washington where it finally crashes into the Capitol building. God didn't cause the flood - it was just shoddy dam construction that resulted from shady deals by a senior congressman (John Goodman). It's nice that God allows Evan's ark to save scores of people, but wouldn't tens of thousands of others be wiped out in a flood that reaches from northern Virginia into the District of Columbia? If you've ever been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Washington Beltway, it's hard not to wonder what kind of staggering death toll such an event would cause.

In the end, Evan has learned a valuable lesson. "Ark," you see, stands for "acts of random kindness," as God tells him. God tinkers with a man's life, compels him to do something that most people would consider insane, allows a dangerous flood to engulf northern Virginia, just to convey a message that's found on a bumper sticker? Even if you were lucky enough to talk to God, that would be enough to make you an atheist.

Rated PG for audience pandering and occasional poop jokes.

** out of four stars. Horrible.

The rating system:

* - Lousy** - Horrible*** - Painful**** - Traumatic