The Man with the Rubber Face

Commentary by James Berardinelli
June 19, 1996

Arms akimbo, eyes bulging, and face twisted into an unimaginably bizarre expression, Jim Carrey has become the most unlikely of mega-movie stars. The unassuming comic, who paid his dues by accepting small movie parts and the recurring "token white guy" role on TV's In Living Color, first hit the big time in early 1994, with the release of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Since then, he has appeared in five other major motion pictures (The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever, Ace Ventura 2, and The Cable Guy), and has several more in the pipeline (including Liar, Liar and The Mask 2). In Hollywood, Carrey is the flavor du jour with the Midas Touch.

Carrey's meteoric rise took me (and just about every other person who writes about movies) by surprise. When I first saw Ace Ventura, back on a chilly February afternoon, I recalled having seen the actor as "Fire Marshall Bill" on In Living Color, and thought he might have been in Earth Girls Are Easy (he was). I didn't realize he had such a devoted following, and was genuinely shocked at the popularity of Ace Ventura. Once the film's gross had exceeded the $50 million mark, I recognized that this was a phenomenon, not a momentary aberration.

Even if you don't like Carrey, it's impossible to deny that he's a talented comic. Granted, while four of his six movies have been abysmal, you can sense the ability. And, even in Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber, and The Cable Guy (none of which I recommend), there are isolated moments of effective humor -- it isn't brilliant, but it makes you laugh. Unfortunately, Carrey rarely varies his shtick, so it quickly grows tiresome. Not so in The Mask and Batman Forever, where he's given enough rope to be funny, but not so much that he hangs himself.

Carrey has two primary assets: energy and enthusiasm. It would be impossible to attain his level of success without them. His bizarre brand of humor, which is like an amalgamation of Jerry Lewis, the Three Stooges, and Charlie Chaplin's Tramp, embodies these qualities. He's passionate about his craft, and fans are equally passionate about him. They don't just admire Carrey; they idolize him, awaiting his next film with an almost-religious fanaticism.

Carrey is not unique in possessing the aforementioned golden characteristics. At least four similarly- endowed, currently-working comics come to mind: Roberto Benigni, John Cleese, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams. There are others who fit the bill, to be sure, but this quartet shares a certain kinship with Carrey. All have different styles, but it's not hard to see why each could be mentioned in the same breath as the $20 million man.

Of the four, Benigni (Son of the Pink Panther, The Monster) is the least like Carrey, yet both delight in appealing to a certain "least common denominator" audience. Scatological and sex jokes are staples in their repertoires, and both have been christened as possessing "rubber features" -- an appellation that refers to the manner in which they screw up their faces. Benigni, a veteran of Jim Jarmusch films and Italian slapstick farces, isn't especially popular on this side of the Atlantic, but his fame in his native land rivals that of Carrey in the United States. Two of his films, Johnny Stecchino and The Monster, are among Italy's highest-ever grossing features. Aside from cultural differences, however, there is a fundamental gap in how Carrey and Benigni approach comedy. While both trade in dumb humor, Benigni (who often writes, directs, and produces his own material) develops clever, meticulous setups for his stupid jokes. Carrey, on the other hand, can boast no such distinction.

John Cleese's brand of humor is a great deal more witty and incisive than Carrey's, but both comics burn calories at an incredible rate. They're equally manic -- there's not much difference in the energy levels of A Fish Called Wanda and Ace Ventura. Cleese and Carrey also both have roots in sketch comedy (albeit separated by more than twenty years). One of the defining characteristics of Cleese's comedy is that he allows it to gather momentum, like a snowball rolling down hill. I usually don't laugh much at the beginning of a Fawlty Towers episode, but, by the end, the laughter comes so hard that it can be difficult to breathe. In contrast, Carrey's style is designed more for immediate satisfaction without a longer-term goal in mind. He's a short attention span comic.

Steve Martin and Carrey have similar backgrounds, and, while Martin's brand of comedy has become more mild and mainstream, he was once known as a "Wild and Crazy Guy." If you look back at the Martin of the late '70s, there are distinct similarities to the Carrey of today. Yet Martin's transition from standup acts to film was not immediately successful. (It's interesting to note, however, that The Jerk and Ace Ventura are two peas in a pod.) It was only after Martin diluted the overt zaniness of his style that he reached widespread acceptance. Over the years, he has also grown into dramatic roles, showing a capacity to do real acting -- something Carrey hasn't been given much of a chance to attempt.

Robin Williams is perhaps Carrey's closest antecedent. Both have an approach to comedy that involves wild body movement, odd facial expressions, rapid-fire impersonations, and distorted voices. Williams tends to be at his best when carefully controlled. On those occasions when his creative impulses are allowed free reign (as in Toys), the results can be unpleasant. Nevertheless, Williams, like Martin, has matured with age. Today, he displays genuine dramatic range and exhibits a willingness to branch into new comic territory. He was very funny in The Birdcage, but that's not the sort of role I can envision Jim Carrey pulling off at this stage of his career.

When it comes to motion pictures, Carrey has been, at least to this point, more of an on-screen presence than a behind-the-scenes force. While he gets input into what he says and how it's delivered, his creative control is limited. Benigni and Cleese have acted, written, directed, and produced. Williams and Martin list credits for acting, writing, and producing on their resumes. All four are polished and accomplished, having enjoyed long and successful careers. Yet, at 32 years old, Carrey has attained a level of popularity that none of the others could match at the same age. In fact, for those foolish enough to use salary as a yardstick, Carrey has already surpassed them.

What the Canadian-born comic has achieved is impressive. At a comparable point in his career, John Cleese was a member of the Monty Python troupe, with The Holy Grail still three years in the future. Similarly, Robin Williams was playing roles in movies like Popeye and The World According to Garp (with his breakthrough picture, Good Morning, Vietnam, still to come). Steve Martin was The Jerk, and it would be four more years before he teamed with Lilly Tomlin in All of Me. And Roberto Benigni was still relatively new to the film world.

The question now is: what does Carrey do with his talent? How does he harness the likeability, energy, and enthusiasm? His out-of-control, wild-man shtick has overstayed its welcome, and only Carrey die- hards believe it can continue to sustain motion pictures. Carrey needs to expand, but not in the direction represented by The Cable Guy. "Chip Douglas" is just a psychotic version of the same old Carrey -- all the familiar mannerisms are present, and there's no attempt at growth or real character development. He's The King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin crossed with Ace Ventura/Fire Marshall Bill/Lloyd Christmas. This isn't a breakthrough role -- it's just a variation on a common theme. Stagnation.

It was around this time in their careers that Benigni, Cleese, Williams, and Martin began to challenge themselves, both on and off-camera. That's what Carrey needs to do. With his future well-assured financially, he can afford to experiment. Without a doubt, he'll make some wrong decisions, but the key to future growth and success is to take risks. If he continues to play versions of the same character, his popularity will wane. People will tire of the routine, and he'll end up hosting Labor Day telethons. Carrey needs to move forward, even if he risks alienating the loyalists who brought him to this point. Maybe then, those who find him irritating and unfathomable now, will start laughing at him. He has the comic potential; it's up to him to realize it.

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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