From the moment that he shot to fame as Ace Ventura, cowlicked goof of destruction, Jim Carrey has rooted his comedy in the anarchic display of power. People love to watch him for the same reason that they love to watch the most untamed pop stars. More than just funny, he's an id, a tornado, a rubber-limbed punk jester who triumphs over the universe by acting out what a lot of us would probably like to do. Carrey isn't afraid to go happily psycho, like Peter Sellers or Eminem on his funniest tracks, and that's his edge. Yet power is a paradoxical thing in a comedian. The more he exercises it, the more familiar it becomes, and the less it feels like a catharsis -- an act of naughty abandon.
Bruce Almighty is a perfectly respectable Jim Carrey comedy that makes you feel as if you're right back in 1997, watching ''Liar Liar.'' Carrey, who looks like he hasn't altered a hair on his head since then, is cast, for the umpteenth time, as an ineffectual square loser who gets touched by an angel of mischief. In this case he's Bruce Nolan, wacky feature reporter at a Buffalo TV news station, where he's the punchline of every office joke. Early on, there's a very funny scene in which Bruce, who has been assigned to interview a wrinkly old lady in front of Niagara Falls, erupts with rage on live television. He has just learned that he's been passed over for the coveted anchor slot, and Carrey turns the episode into a blitzkrieg of giddy vengeance. ''I'm here with Katharine Hepburn's mom,'' he says, stinging the air with sarcasm before he stares into the camera to deliver a gloriously obscene coup de grâce. That's Jim Carrey's power at its most potent.
Bruce, who feels like his dreams are slipping away, is convinced that God is against him. But then he's summoned by the deity himself, played by a frisky Morgan Freeman in a gleaming white suit, standing in a gleaming white loft. To lift Bruce up, but mostly to teach him a lesson, God decides to invest the lowly, self-pitying earthling with the full range of His omnipotence. Strutting down the street to the sweaty groove of Snap!'s ''The Power,'' Carrey gets that Ace Ventura twinkle -- the toothy smile with a hint of the demonic. Before long, he ''parts'' the tomato soup in his bowl and makes a monkey literally come out of the butt of a street hoodlum who terrorized him. Reaching up to the sky, he lassoes the moon and pulls it closer, then closer still, all the better to make love to his girlfriend, Grace (Jennifer Aniston), whom he teases to the verge of orgasm from the next room. Better yet, he scores some major news scoops. There's nothing quite like being able to summon a meteor crash, or the body of Jimmy Hoffa, to look like a crack reporter.
The jokes have been custom-tailored to Carrey, yet in a strange way that's their limitation as well as their amusement. In ''Bruce Almighty,'' Carrey rules his madcap dominion with as much skill as ever, but we never really forget that we're seeing Officially Unhinged Jim Carrey Routines, without the surprise -- and joy -- that they had in, say, the second ''Ace Ventura'' film. Even the star's rowdiest antics now feel less as if they're breaking a mold than fitting snugly into it. Does a ringleader of chaos need to keep upping the ante? Not necessarily. Watching the movie, though, it's hard not to be aware that Carrey, ever since his triumph in ''The Truman Show,'' has been struggling to morph into a serious actor, and that the transition hasn't quite worked out. He has been denied Oscar nominations, and audiences failed to show up for his tour de force portrayal of Andy Kaufman in ''Man on the Moon.'' By the time of ''The Majestic,'' which was three hours of Frank Capra wallpaper, Carrey's blue-chip thespian career was starting to look like a washout. Now, here he is, being conventionally ''wild'' in what looks like an act of commercial contrition.
I'm not saying, of course, that Carrey shouldn't make lightly surreal comedies anymore. I'm saying that precisely by repeating himself, he's doing it with less of an unfettered, anything-goes aura. There's one hilarious high point in ''Bruce Almighty'' that's actually worthy of Peter Sellers, and it isn't even performed by Carrey. Bruce, obsessed with nabbing the anchor position, causes his archrival to become tongue-tied on the air. Steven Carell, who plays the anchor, does sputtering nonsense takes that escalate in humiliating insanity. Carrey's Bruce may hold all the cards, but it's Carell who gets the biggest laughs.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of ''Bruce Almighty'' is the way that it capitalizes, in a minor way, on Carrey's serious-actor inclinations. The movie's final half hour is the feel-good, messagey, Robin Williams section in which Bruce learns that he has to use his abilities for others as well as for himself -- that the real force to be summoned is love. This is the sort of thing that's supposed to make critics cringe, except that Jennifer Aniston has grown into a winsomely spunky and appealing movie star, with the ability to put her tenderest feelings right up on screen. She grounds Carrey, who looks at her with a genuine tremor of wounded romance. If ''Bruce Almighty'' is a hit, Carrey will probably be able to do variations on it for quite some time. The real question is whether he has the power to become more than an anarchist with a heart of gold.