2019 is a year of many anniversaries, but twenty five years ago Jim Carrey was breaking out of his relative obscurity on In Living Color (1990-1994) and showing up in Clint Eastwood movies to actually show off his comedic chops as a leading man. 1994 saw the release of three pivitol films that would define Carrey to the general public and firmly cement his legacy. These were by no means the best movies he ever did in his career, but the best movies of his career did nothing for his reputation in comparison to these crucial three films.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
What’s fascinating about Ace Ventura is how underwhelming the pitch is. It’s a wildly comedic detective story about animals? Sherlock Holmes with a pompadour and a Hawaiian shirt? The pitch feels lacking, as if this was destined for direct to video. Instead, the film offered Carrey the chance he needed for audiences to fall in love with his distinct energy. This is one of the reasons everybody was able to immediately recognize Carrey’s talent. Given ample freedom to improv and mug for the camera, Carrey becomes magnetic to the audience. He takes a weirdly method approach to his physicality. He shapes himself after animals in how he moves and walks and speaks. It also helps that despite his eccentricities, we root for Ace. Ace is smart and actually a good detective, and it’s hard to hate a guy that loves animals, right?
The actual mystery of the missing dolphin from Miami’s football team actually makes things a bit better and Courtney Cox is a great love interest. The elephant in the room is the transphobia present in the latter half of the film. Spoilers for a twenty five year old movie: the culprit is female Police Chief Lois Einhorn, who is secretly male former NFL kicker Ray Finkle. It’s The Crying Game (1992) without half of its grace. Ace and all of the other male characters in the film have an exaggerated disgust to the revelation, despite the actress (yep) portraying Finkle being the beautiful Sean Young. This is like the last big thing Sean Young really did too, and that’s a shame.
Looking into it, the cast and crew seemed aware of the negativity even at the time of ’94. Jim Carrey says in the LA Times,
“I wanted to keep the action unreal and over the top. When it came time to do my reaction to kissing a man, I wanted it to be the biggest, most obnoxious, homophobic reaction ever recorded. It’s so ridiculous it can’t be taken seriously–even though it guarantees that somebody’s going to be offended.” -Jim Carrey, LA Times 1994
Does that excuse the film? No, I think the film’s outlook on sexuality is a little too mean-spirited to age well. It’s not particularly present in the first half of the film, and Carrey himself is only responsible for his own performance and not the tone of the film, so I think the blame doesn’t fall on him here. Even ignoring that drama, the film feels the most mediocre out of these three. It relies so much on Carrey, it would’ve been completely unwatchable without him. In a way that shows how impressive he is, but on the other hand that also means this isn’t that great of a film if you really take a step back.
What did it do for Carrey’s career? Well, this hit number one in the box office and the sequel was greenlit before the film even came out. Carrey got his star power here. Not the A-list kind, but the kind of star power that sells a movie with just your name. That’s essential in the business.
So funny story, I’ve actually read the entirety of the original source material. I’m a big fan of Big Head (an alias for the Mask character). What’s really fascinating is how different the source material was from the final product. The source material is actually very dark. There’s a heavy focus on violence and gore. There’s a color and a manic energy that was there from the start, but the idea of the Tex Avery style cartoon super hero was pretty unique to the film. Carrey stars as Stanley Ipkiss, a bank teller that dreams of hooking up with 1994 era Cameron Diaz, because of course. He finds a mask that gives him super powers at night, and he uses it to achieve his dreams until he realizes its dangers and the real hero was inside Stanley all along. Yuck.
The film is a little more sloppy when you watch it than it is in your memory. Yet, everything bad in the film is just mediocre, and the great stuff is really great. The CGI takes the biggest hit from time, but this is a scenario of nineties CGI that didn’t attempt for realism, and that goes a long way here. The laughs consistently land, my particular favorite moment of the film is when Stanley escapes a police ambush by initiating a flamenco music number. Supporting cast performances are also strong here, and I think the premise and script are strong without Carrey. I don’t know if other actors could do what Carrey did here, but this film always had the potential to be special. I think what resonated with the audiences here was the elevated nature of the source material. In other films, Carrey’s wacky personality feels like it sticks out in contrast to the rest of the world. I would call this Mork syndrome, based on the television show Mork and Mindy (1978-1982), because Carrey shares a lot of similarities to Robin Williams and the entire joke of Mork and Mindy is that Robin Williams is way too wacky to be from this planet. Yet, in The Mask the premise itself is very fantastic and larger than life, so Carrey’s personality meshes incredibly well here to create a cohesive feeling.
What did this do for Carrey? Well, I think this film did the most for his career out of the three. This was far and above the most successful critically and commercially, and this was the second highest grossing superhero movie at the time after Batman (1989). That’s amazing bankability. It also shows how Carrey is able to deal with a little more range, a little more budget, and he also had extensive makeup. Think about how hard it is to move your face and voice like Carrey does, now think about how hard that would be with three pounds of makeup on and you look like a tennis ball.
Dumb and Dumber
This film is fantastic. The Farrelly brothers themselves might have hit their peak with There’s Something About Mary (1998), but Dumb and Dumber combines the archetypal idiotic duo for a slightly modern time. Harry and Lloyd are lovable losers trying to do the right thing. They are terrible at their jobs and are selfish and petty even to themselves, but Carrey and Daniels have an amazing chemistry here and have enough innocence and vulnerability in their performances that when they do bad things, you know it’s just the child in them.
The Farrellys find road trip movies easy to write, because it’s so easy to have their journey mapped to the character’s emotional arc. The different things they see along the way add wonderful variety and the film avoids some of the biggest sins the Farrellys will make in future films.
My favorite comedies are ones that are written and performed so well that there’s a laugh between every breath. This film has that. Not only does it have that, but unlike its sequel and other films in this style, almost all of them land. Sure, they land in different ways from mere chuckles or wrinkles of the smile to gut busters, but the smile never goes away.
Also, since this is probably the only time in my writing career I’m going to talk about Dumb and Dumber, I should say I absolutely adore this soundtrack. The Farrellys always tried to utilize an alternative folksy soundtrack to their roadtrip movies, but I think it’s best suited here. There’s an earnestness Harry and Lloyd have that their other characters don’t. I would concede Ernie from Kingpin (1996) but he is also a sharp contrast to his foil Roy Munson. That pure, unrivaled earnestness here allows for the colorful alternative rock to really control the film’s momentum.
If there’s one thing to comment about this film in relation to Carrey’s career and these three movies in general, it’s that this film is the most impressive. It’s the film that relies the least on Carrey. This film could’ve been great without him. Carrey doesn’t utilize his stretchy or scattered personality to as great of an effect, rather he utilizes that physicality in reactions and delivery.
What Happened After?
In 1995 he would make Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and Batman Forever. Both films are less than stellar critically speaking, but they’re still really big deals. Carrey was a super star. What saved his career from being typecast was the year of 1998, when he would portray Truman Burbank in The Truman Show and Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. While the quality of those films can be debatable, they still have a special quality to them and showcased more versatility for Carrey’s acting, which was desperately needed.
He could afford to do those dramatic roles now. He had the safety net of these three films to cement his status as comedic (though arguably, children’s) super star. He would go in waves, doing projects that interested him personally with directors he’s already worked with, then go for safe paychecks from children’s films because no matter how bad the film is nobody is seriously going to question Carrey’s effort and performance.
Wait, did I just hint at what’s going to happen in Sonic the Hedgehog? Forget you read this.