Jim Carrey At Sixty
I was a very shy teenager, which made Sixth Form a pretty difficult time for me. I wasn’t good around strangers, and suddenly I had a whole bunch of new schoolmates to get used to. The Sixth Form Centre in our scruffy estate school in Ipswich served the outlying villages, and the newcomers all seemed so smart and well-spoken compared to our mob.
One incident from that time really sticks in my mind. We were all sitting around in the common room, with me next to a friend I’d known since childhood. Everyone was chatting in a group, and I thought of a joke. I didn’t have the confidence to say it out loud, so I whispered it in my friend’s ear. He repeated it, and got a big laugh.
It was around that time that The Mask came out, and we went to see it at the Odeon in town. We found it hilarious, and there was something so infectious about Jim Carrey’s performance that a little of his uninhibited alter ego found its way to me. I swaggered out of there feeling like I was invincible. It only lasted for the walk back from the cinema to the bus station, but in those moments I felt like I could say or do anything.
That was 1994, the year that Carrey bounded, seemingly fully formed, into our public consciousness. He’d honed his particular brand of comedy since the late ‘70s, starting out as an impressionist on the Toronto stand-up circuit. His big break was when Rodney Dangerfield spotted him and signed him up as his opening act.
His career on the up, he toured with Dangerfield, made TV appearances in the States, and broke into movies with small parts in films like Peggy Sue Got Married, The Dead Pool, and Earth Girls Are Easy.
1990s: Movie Star? Alrighty then!
The sketch show In Living Color helped take Carrey’s career to the next level, when he landed the lead role in something called Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
Love it or hate it, Ace Ventura is such a perfect vehicle for Carrey’s early shtick that it’s almost unbelievable to think the character wasn’t created especially for him. Yet before Carrey whipped out the Brylcreem and donned the outrageous Hawaiian shirt, Rick Moranis, Judd Nelson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Alan Rickman were all considered for the part.
The film hasn’t aged well - that transgender stuff was a bit iffy even back in the day - but it’s still difficult not to get swept away by the idiotic exuberance of Ace, something that Carrey banked on when he signed up and started re-writing the script:
"I knew this movie was going to either be something that people really went for, or it was going to ruin me completely. From the beginning of my involvement, I said that the character had to be rock 'n' roll. He had to be the 007 of pet detectives. I wanted to be unstoppably ridiculous, and they let me go wild."
The film was a hit and spawned an inferior sequel, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. There are even more cringeworthy dated moments, but it still has the legendary rhino birth sequence. That scene still kills me now, even though I should probably know better!
It was the beginning of Carreymania, and 1994 had two more even bigger, louder, and outrageous hits to offer: The Mask and Dumb and Dumber.
In The Mask, Carrey played Stanley Ipkiss, a lonely doofus who finds himself transformed into a living toon by a mysterious ancient mask. Like Ace Ventura, it has dated pretty badly, grinding to a halt in between the manic set pieces when Ipkiss becomes his wild and crazy zoot-suited alter ego, but it’s still an impressive demonstration of Carrey’s whirlwind comic talents.
Next up, Carrey formed an inspired comedy pairing with Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber. Daniels was better known for his dramatic roles until that point, so it was a surprise to see him matching Carrey for stupidity as the slightly smarter half of the moronic duo. Arguably Carrey’s funniest outright comedy, he nails Lloyd’s childish character, from his puppy dog pining for a woman he has barely met to his gleeful spitefulness when Harry unwittingly becomes his love rival.
Suddenly, Jim Carrey was one of the biggest stars on the planet, commanding $20 million paydays for his roles in Batman Forever and The Cable Guy, plus a cool $15 million for the Ace Ventura sequel - he had only received $700k for the original.
Batman and The Cable Guy already gave us an indication of Carrey’s future: that his zany, gurning persona wouldn’t last forever, and that he would eventually turn to darker, more interesting work.
Carrey seemed like a good fit for the Riddler at the time, and he sure tries to give maximum value for that huge fee in a role that (shudder) Michael Jackson reportedly wanted very badly. Batman Forever is a dayglo mess, a full demonstration of director Joel Schumacher’s worst excesses. Val Kilmer made a dour Caped Crusader and Tommy Lee Jones wildly hammed it up as Two Face. Jones didn’t like getting upstaged by Carrey, and let him know in no uncertain terms how much he hated him.
Although it still made a decent profit, The Cable Guy was perceived as something of a misfire, a little too creepy and weird for many critics and viewers. Carrey bounced back strongly, rounding out the ‘90s with three very strong roles. His performance as Fletcher Reede in Liar, Liar, a slippery lawyer who only cares about his career, is often regarded among his best.
He then started his transition into Serious Jim parts with his first dramatic role in The Truman Show, playing Truman Burbank, a man who has unknowingly spent his whole life on camera for a reality TV show. Working with an excellent director like Peter Weir and a seasoned cast including Ed Harris and Laura Linney really brought the best out of Carrey. Sure, there were still a few goofy Carreyisms along the way (“Good morning! And in case I don’t see ya…”) but even that paid off in the rousing, uplifting finale for his first fully rounded character.
His performance attracted critical acclaim and did well on the awards circuit, picking up a Best Actor award at the Golden Globes, but he was snubbed by the Oscars. Ed Harris received a nomination for Supporting Actor instead.
Carrey then delved even further into the possibilities of dramatic acting, going full-method for his role as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon. He found some kind of kinship with the deceased Taxi star and his obnoxious alter-ego, Tony Clifton, staying in character the whole time on set. His method antics frustrated Forman and his co-stars, but critics were full of praise for his work and he won another Golden Globe for the performance. Once again, Oscar wasn’t interested.
2000s: A Serious Actor Still Playing the Clown
Carrey’s move into more dramatic roles was a welcome one, even though the next decade was still dominated by his zanier parts, with far more uneven results. There perhaps was a sense that we’d now seen his full box of tricks, and in many cases, his roles were a repetition on a theme.
For Me, Myself and Irene, he re-teamed with the Farrelly Brothers for a movie that was far grosser than their earlier hit, Dumb and Dumber, but in a more mean-spirited way. Carrey still had his moments as Charlie, a meek traffic cop whose aggressively macho split personality is awakened after one too many insults.
Likewise, his performance as The Grinch in Ron Howard’s garish Christmas movie felt a little like a re-tread of his wild mugging as the Riddler, even down to the character’s main colour scheme.
Then, after the success of Liar, Liar, we also had High Concept Jim, where he spends a movie over-reacting to a one-line elevator pitch. We had Bruce Almighty (What if a regular guy found himself with God’s powers?) and Yes Man (What if a regular guy decides to say “Yes” to everything?)
The Noughties were an incredibly busy time for the star, as he seemed willing to throw himself into just about whatever came his way. He went dramatic again in The Majestic and over-the-top again in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. He did a lightweight crime caper, Fun With Dick and Jane, and more Dr Seuss in Horton Hears a Who! He played Scrooge in Robert Zemeckis’s CG adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and dabbled in darkness again in The Number 23, where his character's sinister alter ego just came across as an evil Ace Ventura.
Among all this, we also got two of Carrey’s best performances to date. First he played against type as the quiet, retiring Joel Barish in Michel Gondry’s beautifully melancholic break-up story in reverse, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It was another mind-bender from the pen of Charlie Kaufman, with Gondry’s imaginative style preventing it becoming a bummer, unlike when Kaufman directs his own material. Kate Winslet also played against type as Joel’s effervescent but prickly girlfriend, Clementine. Carrey’s poignant, understated performance grounded the film and, as we would later find out, seems to be closer to the actor’s real personality.
In stark contrast was his flamboyant turn as real-life conman and escape artist Steven Jay Russell in the subversive black comedy, I Love You Phillip Morris, playing opposite Ewan McGregor.
Carrey really relishes the comic possibilities of the role, and the film was as outrageous as you might expect from the writers of Bad Santa. It delivered a refreshingly frank approach to homosexuality for a mainstream Hollywood movie with two A-list stars. While it was probably Carrey’s most outright funny film since Liar, Liar, the story had solid dramatic and romantic underpinnings, showing just how good he could be when he had strong material to work with.
2010s: Retreat from Superstardom
After such a busy period in his career, Carrey began to gradually remove himself from the spotlight. He started the decade with a hit and a miss - Mr Popper’s Penguins and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, before playing Colonel Stars and Stripes in Kick-Ass 2. The poor sequel was best remembered for Carrey’s about turn after the Sandy Hook school shooting, saying he could no longer condone the level of violence in good conscience.
He misguidedly re-teamed with Jeff Daniels for Dumb and Dumber To, which failed to capture the original’s mischievous spirit. With both men now in their fifties, their antics just looked pathetic and a bit creepy. He had a small, wordless part in Ana Lily Amirpour’s self-indulgent sophomore feature, The Bad Batch, before going super-dark this time in Dark Crimes, a gloomy true-life murder mystery that became one of the worst received films of 2018. He then tried to recapture his manic heyday as Dr Robotnik in Sonic the Hedgehog, a role he will reprise in the upcoming sequel.
It has hardly been a golden period for Carrey as an actor, and he freely admits that he feels he has done everything he wants to accomplish in front of the cameras. Sick of the Hollywood cycle, he works on his other projects, writing books and becoming a political cartoonist and bashing Trump on Twitter. Despite this, he has still found the motivation for two very strong roles - as a grieving TV children’s entertainer in the series Kidding, and as himself in the fascinating documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Man on the Moon, which gives an intriguing insight into his creative process.
In all, Carrey has made more headlines over the past 10 years for his increasingly peculiar public musings than the kind of movie performances that made him such a huge star.
There was the moment in 2017 when he took to the red carpet at the New York Fashion Week wearing a shiny suit, and prowled around a Catt Sadler from E!, an unsuspecting celebrity reporter who just wanted a few soundbites. Carrey wasn’t in the mood for the usual inane patter that people usually trade at such events. He was feeling far more existential:
“I believe we’re a field of energy dancing for itself…and, er… I don’t care.”
When Sadler gamely tried switching the conversation back to something more unchallenging by praising how he was dressed, he continued:
“No, I didn’t get dressed up… there is no me… there is just things happening… and there are clusters of tetrahedrons moving around together…”
And there it was. The man who had become an overnight movie star by pretending to talk out of his arse as Ace Ventura had apparently returned to the well. The new Jim was no longer the happy smiley Jim or the wild and crazy Jim. Many questioned his sanity. Yet, as one of the most successful and recognizable actors of the past 30 years, who had amassed a net worth of $180 million, the truth was abundant: Jim Carrey no longer needed to pretend.
In another interview, while discussing how he “doesn’t exist,” he said this:
“I played the guy who was free from concern, so that people who watched me would be free from concern.”
This really struck a chord. It cast my mind back to that night when, as a shy teenager, I bounded out of a screening of The Mask feeling like I could run up walls. Carrey has said some pretty strange things over the past decade, but this one makes me think there is still plenty of method behind the madness.
Thanks Lee! We are huge Jim Carrey fans and always have a great selection of original posters for his movies. You can find them all here.
Jim Carrey’s latest film Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is scheduled for release in April. What are your favourite Jim Carrey movies or performances? Let us know!
Adam and the Art of the Movies team