Halfway through The Mask, I began to understand — well, okay, a little bit — why Jim Carrey is a movie star. Carrey, the doofus triumphant of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, plays Stanley Ipkiss, a bank clerk so scared of his own desires that whenever he has the impulse to show any aggression, all he can do is stare like a bird and flash his helpless, fake-enthusiastic grin. He’s a worrywart, a loser, a yuppie geek. Stanley, though, has stumbled upon a secret weapon, an ancient wooden mask that allows his suppressed inner self to go wild. As soon as he puts it on, he becomes the Mask, a green-faced freakazoid hipster in a yellow zoot suit. (He looks like the Wizard of Oz impersonating Superfly.) To say that this transformed fellow knows how to have a good time would be to understate the demonic extremity of his party-heartiness. Booming out lines like ”Somebody stop me!” in a basso-profundo growl, he makes Jack Nicholson’s Joker seem in dire need of Prozac.

The Mask does anything he wants, twirling through rooms like a tornado and producing gag props as quickly as his mind can invent them. He’s like one of Tex Avery’s anarchic animated characters come to life (Stanley watches Avery cartoons in his off-hours). When he ogles a beautiful nightclub singer, his lusty heart bursts right out of his chest. Facing down an army of police (he’s wanted for bank robbery), he breaks into a Latin-style musical number, descending into mambo madness with such a pure spasm of tail-shaking joy that I wasn’t surprised to see the cops’ bodies begin to twitch and sway of their own accord.

Jim Carrey is a kind of flyweight Robin Williams, with a face as elastic as his rubbery physique. Surprisingly handsome (at least, for someone who has yet to outgrow fart jokes), his sexy, elfin features have a way of melting into stylized clown shapes, especially when his lips curl back into that son-of- Richard-Nixon leer. At his worst, he can simply be obnoxious: the back-of- the-class goofball who won’t keep quiet until he’s gotten a laugh out of you. At his best, though, Carrey, like a postmodern cousin of the Three Stooges, has a gift for pushing idiocy over the line into manic delirium.

Earlier this year, I considered joining the ”I Panned Ace Ventura” support group for out-of-touch movie critics. In truth, though, the film’s popularity wasn’t all that mysterious. This was a comedy beloved by kids, who perceived in Ace’s ya-gotta-love-me grins and preening camp sarcasm an adorable problem child trapped inside an adult’s lanky body. The trouble with the film — for some of us out of junior high, at any rate — was that it failed to provide Carrey with a comic structure for his routines. He was the whole damned show, like a guy doing shtick in his agent’s office.

The Mask is pretty thin stuff as well, a rattletrap Jekyll-and-Hyde farce that surrounds Carrey with a nothing plot and a cast of supporting ciphers (generic thug, generic cop, generic sexpot, etc.). The filmmakers never quite succeed in making the Mask seem a true expression of Stanley’s hidden self. A cleverer script would have woven him into the action more, allowing him to live out Stanley’s romantic night-world fantasies. Instead, he simply shows up every so often for another nut-brain set piece; when he leaves, the movie deflates. It doesn’t help that Carrey lacks presence in the Stanley scenes. His caricature of a nerd is almost too masochistic to enjoy. I wish, too, that the Mask himself had been given funkier dialogue — that is, fewer fortune-cookie hipsterisms like ”You can’t make the scene if you don’t have the green!” Still, thanks to Carrey, the Mask’s scenes are rowdy and enjoyable, like gonzo production numbers. They give you a charge.

The special effects are, well, eye-popping, even though you’ve already seen most of them in the trailer. And late in the story, the filmmakers pull off a coup: The mask slips onto the face of Stanley’s dog, who discovers the happy beastie within. This sequence has an escalating, can-you-top-this? quality that’s mostly missing from the rest of the picture. Aside from its visual gimmickry, The Mask is cheesy in a low-budget, stitched-together way. It seems like half a movie — or, more accurately, a living cartoon character in search of a movie. Of course, Carrey now has the clout to find a vehicle worthy of his hyperactive gooniness. When he does, we’ll see if he’s truly a jester for our time or simply the moron of the moment. C+

  • Music