Liar Liar (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

While watching Liar Liar, it occurred to me that the chief problem with this film is that it has a script. If Jim Carrey had been unleashed without such silly, incidental constraints as plot and dialogue, who knows where things might have gone? As it is, however, Carrey is forced to confine his antics to the needs of Liar Liar's unimaginative screenplay, and the results are mixed. There are times when Carrey is excruciatingly funny, but, on those occasions when he's expected to do anything remotely approaching "real" acting, his limitations become abundantly clear.

Liar Liar is the latest in a long line of movies to skewer lawyers. In this case, the assumption is that it's impossible for an attorney to get through the day without resorting to all sorts of lies and half-truths. For a nation that has just endured more than a year's worth of O.J. Simpson-related testimony, this idea has a great deal of resonance. So, although a smartly-written satire about this subject could be immensely satisfying, that film is not Liar Liar. As directed by physical comedy specialist Tom Shadyac ( Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor), this outing is designed for one purpose only -- as a showcase for Jim Carrey. The potential richness of the premise is irrelevant.

Carrey plays (and I use that word loosely) Fletcher Reede, a slick-talking lawyer whose over-the-top court performances have earned him numerous unexpected victories. When an airheaded bimbo (Jennifer Tilley) wants Fletcher's law firm to handle a lucrative-but-difficult divorce case, Fletcher is all too eager to oblige. Unlike some of his cohorts, he doesn't have an ethical problem with lying in court, and lies, he believes, will win this case. His predatory boss (Amanda Donohoe), aware of his ability, tells him that if he comes out on top this time, he'll be made a partner.

Meanwhile, Fletcher's five-year old son, Max (Justin Cooper), is celebrating his birthday. When Fletcher calls to say that he won't be able to make the party (just another in a long history of no-shows), Max is crushed. Then, with the candles on his cake beckoning to be blown out, he gets an idea and, as his breath extinguishes their light, Max makes a wish that his father will be unable to tell a lie for twenty-four hours. The wish comes true and suddenly Fletcher finds himself forced to speak the truth on a day when the ability to lie is critical.

The comic apex of Liar Liar comes two-thirds of the way into the film, during a board room meeting where Fletcher bluntly and hilariously tells each of his co-workers what he really thinks of them. Several of the court scenes are equally funny, with Carrey investing so much zany energy that it's almost impossible not to laugh. There's no denying that the actor is a gifted physical comic, and his fans will almost certainly be pleased by what he has accomplished here.

Unfortunately, there is a dramatic element to this story, and that's where Carrey stumbles. Liar Liar is a would-be tale of redemption -- its ultimate goal is to reunite a changed Fletcher with his son and ex-wife (Maura Tierney, from NBC's News Radio). That aspect of the film doesn't really work, however, because Carrey's lack of range has us snickering almost as much at his attempts to be serious as at his most outrageous comic moments. As a result, Liar Liar comes across as a series of manic explosions connected together by mush.

All-in-all, Liar Liar is pretty good fun, and it represents one of Carrey's most entertaining movies to date. (Could he -- gasp -- be growing on me?) The comic is in top form, both in the material that made it into the picture and during the end-credit outtakes (which, in many ways, are funnier). And it's delightful to watch performers like Amanda Donohoe and helium-voiced Jennifer Tilley struggle to keep their composure when Carrey does something exceptionally goofy. In the past, I have said that I generally prefer Jim Carrey in small doses. This may be the exception. Without him, Liar Liar would have been an unforgivably bad movie. With him, it's a mediocre film peppered with amusing highlights. And, honestly, I think that just about says all that needs to be said about Gentleman Jim's followup to The Cable Guy.

Liar Liar (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 1997-03-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1