Here is Jim Carrey, telling you pretty much everything you need to know about Jim Carrey: “I just knew [from an early age] that I needed a lot of attention from a lot of people and I needed to prove to the world that I was magic. That was the underlying factor in everything. It’s the underlying reason why I do this.”Don’t a lot of actors say things like this? They do. The difference is, Carrey means it. He really really means it.
In a Hollywood where there is rarely very much at stake anymore besides money, Carrey’s quixotic quest for the best that Hollywood stardom has to offer is the most interesting high-wire act around–maybe even the only one around, at present. His career as a topline star commenced in 1994 with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, an unusually apt vehicle in that Carrey was allowed to take what started as a fairly straight B-picture (think Jim Belushi and K-9) and turn it into a farce on the strength of his manic mugging and ad-libbing. Two things were immediately evident: He could do physical comedy like no one else in generations, and he’d stand on your throat to get your attention.
But it was more than attention Carrey meant to command. He wanted love, adulation, respect–whatever you had. It’s hard to think of another male actor quite so needy. He’s practically an Y-chromosome version of Marilyn Monroe. And Carrey was nothing if not likeable. His comedy contained nothing of its era’s defining cynicism, which was less a creative decision than a reflection of the fact that Jim Carrey is not wired to understand cynicism. Cynics stand outside. Carrey wanted in. His metier was not the smirk but the full-bore anarchic grin that only grew wider the harder he chomped on the scenery. There was no malice and no condescension in anything he did, just a gleeful sense of the untapped absurdities lurking in every scene.
But there was an undercurrent of menace, too, without which the rapid-fire gags would have worn out pretty quickly. If Carrey seemed a little like a stray dog that licks your hand and follows you home, you always half-expected this particular mutt to attack anyone who tried to leave the room while he was doing his tricks. Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy (1996) is Carrey’s best performance, and his best movie, for exactly that reason. It was also his first box-office stiff. Nobody wanted a Carrey who wouldn’t go home, who held on to your ankle and gnawed until he drew real blood. Nobody wanted a comedy that played fast and loose with the kind of bottomless loneliness that turns its victims into dangerous people.
He followed The Cable Guy with two movies that represented much safer bets: the gloppy, wholesome Liar Liar (1997) and The Truman Show (1998), a concept movie of middling merits that posed considerably greater risks for director Peter Weir than for Carrey. It’s tempting to suppose that Carrey made them partly because he wanted no part of roles like The Cable Guy that put his rising star at risk, but it’s not so; the lead times of Hollywood productions being what they are, he was signed to both projects before The Cable Guy bombed.
The path his career has followed is the one dictated from the start by his aspirations and the way he defines success. What a friend of mine lamented a couple of years back as the “Tom-Hanksification” of Carrey–the process of turning him into a latter-day Gary Cooper, a totem of idealism and uprightness–has been in the cards all along. And each step of the way it has involved discarding a little more of what Carrey does best in the pursuit of what he needs most.
I’ve always suspected that Carrey isn’t as interested in acting as he lets on. Yes, he takes pride in his craft, approaches it with diligence and usually intelligence, seems to enjoy the challenge of unraveling a character. That’s not the point. What I mean is that it’s all a means to an end–that he wants to be a star and an idol much more than he wants to be an artist. That’s a crucial difference. In the end Jim Carrey needs to mainline adulation. He has to be loved for being Jim Carrey, not for anything he manages to create as an artist (hence all the painful, compulsive confessionalism in his interviews).
It leaves him little room to differentiate himself from the parts he plays (remember all the bizarre tales of his transmogrifying into Andy Kauffman on the set of Man on the Moon), or conversely to differentiate the parts he plays from the way he wishes to be seen. And he wishes to be seen as someone who never gives offense, is impossible not to like. Which leads inevitably enough to Opie Howard’s shining, saccharine Grinch and the even greater depths of The Majestic, the execrable little post-WWII fable that’s being released to home video this month. They call it “Capra-esque,” but Capra never made anything this treacly. Carrey does everything but lick the camera to pull you nearer, but it’s a con. You know there are plenty of things he’s too afraid to show you. Even the Academy Award nominators, usually suckers for simpering flattery, were repelled this time. But no matter. “Carrey has never been better,” raved Roger Ebert. The show must go on.
Don’t bet that he’s through, though. He’s presently linked to three projects, and two of them sound like stinkers–a God-for-a-day comedy called Bruce Almighty; a social drama called Children of the Dust Bowl that’s sure to be Spielberg-ian in its middlebrow sentimentality; and a Howard Hughes biopic with Memento director Christopher Nolan. After that he would probably run for president if he could. But as a native-born Canadian he can’t, so he’s stuck in the movies. Once he’s Forrest-Gumped his way to an Oscar and sees how little it assuages in him, it’s hard telling what Carrey may do. He might even get interested in the work for its own sake. The Majestic is available on DVD beginning June 17.
Steve Perry is a frequent contributer to CounterPunch and a columnist for The Rake.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org