In I Love You Phillip Morris, Jim Carrey plays a devout Christian police officer who discovers his true calling as a high-living gay man, a prison-escaping con artist, and the obsessed paramour of Ewan McGregor. It’s an unhinged performance… but Carrey has been specializing in unhinged, semi-psychotic characters for almost two decades now. (Remember Bob Jackson, Karate Instructor?) We decided to honor (and deconstruct) the star by looking back at the role that made him famous. Return with us, readers, to a time before the $20 million paycheck, before the zeitgeist-defining pratfalls, before the “serious” roles that worked (The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and the ones that didn’t (The Majestic, The Number 23.) And please, help us to ponder an unthinkable question: Just how freakin’ bad is Ace Ventura: Pet Detective?
Keith Staskiewicz: Alrighty then!
Darren Franich: This was Jim Carrey’s first big hit, the movie that catapulted him to superstardom and set him up for a ridiculously big year — first Ace Ventura, then The Mask, then Dumb & Dumber — and very shortly, he was breaking all salary records by earning $20 million per movie. And yet, his kingdom was built on a throne of lies! Because, man, oh man, Ace Ventura is terrible. I remember thinking this movie was the funniest thing ever when it came out. Now, I’m at a loss to find any redeeming quality whatsoever.
KS: Look, I’m a victim of nostalgia as much as anyone else. I name The Goonies as my favorite movie of all time, and I’ve cried when Optimus Prime dies in the animated Transformers movie, but I totally agree, this is a genuinely terrible film that manages to be grating and boring all at once like a teacher simultaneously giving a history lecture and dragging their nails on the chalkboard. And I’m fully prepared to be called Prof. Snobby Snooterson of the Jean-Luc Godard Academy of Elite Pretentiousness, but there it is.
DF: This is the first time I’ve seen the movie in at least eight years, and I’m wondering if a bit part of my visceral reaction just has to do with not being a kid anymore. When I was young watching Ace Ventura, I thought he was a hilarious character. Now, all I see is a profound jackass.
KS: But you can’t even pretend it’s profound, like Jackass.
DF: At the same time, it’s weird watching this movie when it’s now 16 years old, because I feel like I can see all kinds of terrible influences it had on comedy. Ace Ventura is simultaneously a buffoon, a sort of lovable rebel figure, and also basically a super-genius. He’s nominally an outcast, but every scene of the movie comes down to him successfully one-upping everyone. It feels to me like almost every movie ever made starring an SNL actor post-‘95: Mr. Deeds, Taxi, Superstar. The only redeeming quality of the movie is that Carrey really does seem legitimately unhinged. He completely oversells everything. It’s not really funny, but it’s all the energy that would actually BE funny in other movies.
KS: Unhinged is a good word. For me, I was so annoyed by Ace that I ended up formulating an entirely different reading of the movie that made him more understandable, if not tolerable. In it, Ace Ventura is a tragic character, clearly unable to maintain any sort of normalized human interaction at all. He isn’t so much socially inept as he is socially catastrophic. Just look at any conversation in the movie. Nearly everyone else is entirely reasonable, calm, and collected, while he just makes noises and screams in their faces. The party scene is particularly revealing, in that it shows just how completely unable to be a part of human society he is, which is most likely why he has retreated into the company of animals, who behave much in the same way as he does. Another offshoot of this reading is that almost all of the film actually takes place in his mind, the only real events being those in the mental hospital when he “pretends” to be totally insane. When you think about it, his behavior then is almost identical to any other point in the movie, so maybe that’s who he really is: insane, locked up, and dreaming that he is out playing with animals and saving the day and sleeping with Courteney Cox, who in this reality, is actually his sister.
DF: I love that reading of the film, if only because it’s more intelligent and well-thought-out than anything else that happens in the movie.
KS: Seriously, though, I only came up with it as my own form of mental escape.
DF: But at least it kind of makes sense. Whereas the actual plot of the movie is nonsense. Except no, because it’s actually a bizarrely complex plot: A disgraced football player plots vengeance, has a near-complete sex-change operation, adopts the identity of a dead hiker, BECOMES THE CHIEF OF POLICE, and then waits and hopes that the Dolphins will actually go to the Super Bowl. I really want to say that Jim Carrey rises above all of this, but in a weird way, this movie feels like the sort of Love Guru-ish travesty that usually happens LATER in a star’s career, when they insist that every scene is based around them doing something funny with their voice.
KS: The Mask at least harnessed Jim Carrey’s manic energy into something that makes sense. Rather than being an entirely insufferable human being, he plays a mild-mannered guy who becomes a wacky and crazy only when he has on the mask. It’s also a lot more lighthearted and fun, like a Tex Avery or Chuck Jones cartoon. Whereas this is more equivalent to a 90-minute video of a screeching cat trapped in a drainpipe. There are also nearly zero jokes in the film. Anything that could be construed as laughs comes solely from Carrey’s reading of the material, whether because it’s with a memorable cadence like “Ree-hee-hee-hee-heeallly” or because it’s coming via his anus. I definitely give Carrey points in that he was doing something that no one else was at that point in time: absolute, unabashed, full-tilt physical comedy. The early ’90s was really all about deadpan, sardonic Janeane Garofalo types. So I can understand how the second coming of Jerry Lewis could be taken as a refreshing change of pace, but I must say that it really is nice to see the almost meteoric rise in quality of Carrey’s work over the following five years.
DF: Well, I guess that’s the most interesting thing to me: You’ve got The Mask and Dumb & Dumber also in 1994, but then you have Batman Forever and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls in 1995, both terrible and frankly terrible FOR Jim Carrey. But then, bam, you’ve got The Cable Guy, Liar Liar, and The Truman Show, which almost feel like the three best versions of Carrey: Legitimately Unhinged, Lovably Spastic, and (weirdly) Everyman.
KS: And then Man on the Moon, which managed both to validate him as a great actor, and retroactively validate his previous work by plugging him into a certain comic tradition. And I’m not convinced of the terribleness of his Riddler. In fact, I kind of like it.
DF: It seems even crazier now that he was cast in The Truman Show. Like, in Truman, he’s the normal person in an extremely crazy world. It’s a perfect flip of the usual Carrey equation. Do you think it’s because Carrey is the rare physical comedian who’s also pretty handsome? I mean, no offense to Jerry Lewis, but Carrey looks way more like a Dean Martin.
KS: Although, Chris Farley was always pretty sexy. One thing I was pondering was just how many of his movies are based on single-sentence high concepts. Actually, not even single sentences, just phrases are enough. “Detective for pets,” “Man with an id mask,” “Man who can’t lie,” “Man who is God,” “Man who says yes to everything,” “Man who falls in love with a girl and then decides to go for an experimental treatment that erases her from his memory, but then decides against it and has to fight his own past and mind while in a dream-state only to find that, while he did eliminate her, they are destined to repeat their love ad infinitum in a tragicomic closed loop.” You know, that kind of stuff.
DF: You’re right — he does seem like a star uniquely well-built for the age of High-Concept comedy, which might explain why he’s somewhat fallen out of the limelight in this Apatow-dominant half-decade. Did you ever see A Christmas Carol? I seem to recall that it got good reviews, which kind of fascinates me, since I believe Carrey played 57 roles in the movie.
KS: I haven’t, because Robert Zemeckis’ dead-eyed computer muppets threaten to consume my soul. One last observation: In 1994, there was Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Then in 1999, there was Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. That’s a weirdly specific movie-title formula to repeat: Card-name Surname: Wacky Profession. Will we be seeing something along the lines of Trey Fingbottom: Bologna Repairman or Jack Garber: Monkey Barber soon?
NEXT WEEK: Boxing movies come in two flavors: awesome, and really awesome. The Fighter certainly looks like it could be good: It’s the true-life story of a struggling boxer, complete with lots of Oscar-ready family drama. But will it come close to the magnificence of Rocky IV, a mostly true-life story in which Sylvester Stallone tries to end the Cold War single-handedly by defeating Dolph Lundgren in the boxing ring? We’ll find out next Friday.