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Career Arc: Jim Carrey

Man-child angst has paid off well, now he's bored and old

In June, Jim Carrey took to Twitter to publicly disavow his association with the action-comedy Kick-Ass 2, which enters the dreary summer of 2013 blockbuster sweepstakes on Friday. “I did Kickass a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence,” he tweeted. While Carrey stopped short of condemning the film outright in a subsequent tweet (“I am not ashamed of it”), he implied that he couldn’t bring himself to promote Kick-Ass 2 on Letterman or Leno or Kimmel or Extra! or anyplace else, for that matter. He apologized to his colleagues for sandbagging the project, but one prominent creator of Kick-Ass 2 expressed gratitude over Carrey’s breach of movie-star professionalism. “People keep saying to me, ‘Are you pissed off at Jim Carrey?’ No, I’m delighted with Jim Carrey, this is amazing,” writer-producer Mark Millar said last week. “For your main actor to publicly say, ‘This movie is too violent for me’ is like saying, ‘This porno has too much nudity. We’ll have to go and see this now.'”

This summer has been a battlefield riddled with the corpses of dead-on-arrival event movies. Whether Kick-Ass 2 will defy the trend or fortify it is beside the point. Carrey’s concern trolling for American culture aside, Kick-Ass 2 does not and will not matter, neither in a macro “What impact will this have on society?” sense nor a micro “How will this affect the course of Jim Carrey’s career?” sense. The world, and especially Jim Carrey, will continue to exist after Kick-Ass 2 just as it did before Kick-Ass 2. The girders that reenforce the superstructure of Carrey’s stardom seem all but impervious to disruption. For example: Carrey can essentially walk off the field before his biggest game of the year is even played and not be noticeably harmed by it. His status as a bankable leading man is so secure that it’s practically invisible. The last movie Carrey appeared in that anyone gave a damn about beyond its theatrical run was 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was also his last stab at a dramatic role in a full-on prestige film. Surveying the arid landscape of his more recent filmography — Fun With Dick and Jane, The Number 23, Yes Man, A Christmas Carol, I Love You Phillip Morris, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone — is a lesson in how movies you don’t think could possibly be successful can quietly make money. Fun With Dick and Jane grossed $200 million worldwide. Yes Man grossed $223 million. A Christmas Carol grossed $325 million. Mr. Popper’s Penguins grossed just under $200 million. If Carrey no longer seems like an A-list star, it’s because his films no longer feel like events; they grind out profits in the unsexiest of ways, with broad comedies and super-broad family films that pick up most of their scratch overseas. Jim Carrey’s name above the title might be money in the bank, but it’s strictly in the form of low-risk mutual funds.

So, let Ryan Reynolds sweat out the damage that R.I.P.D. has wrought on his already diminished status as a leading man. Carrey hasn’t had to live from project to project since the turn of the century. In that time he has grown accustomed to making films that don’t matter.

The Truman Show Grantland contributor Tom Carson on Jim Carrey, from Esquire in 2000: “For all the inspired dementia of the skits on In Living Color that first won him notice, a troublemaker he isn’t — not even the larky kind Mike Myers is. Real satiric impudence requires some sort of critical spirit, and it’s evident that Carrey’s only commitment to outrageousness was as a stepping-stone — with ‘To what?’ being the question to which he still hasn’t figured out a satisfying answer.”

Carson wrote that right before the release of one of Carrey’s biggest hits (and least watchable movies), How the Grinch Stole Christmas. “To what?” might not have seemed like a relevant Jim Carrey–related question at the time. Carrey was following the Hollywood playbook: Be a comedian who gets on a TV show, be a TV star that gets his own movie, be a comedy movie star who becomes a movie-movie star, be a movie star who becomes an award-winning movie star. Every step of the way, Carrey was able to locate the next “To what?” destination.

A couple of years prior to Carson’s article, Carrey had effectively transitioned from the ass-talking anarchist of his legacy-making mid-’90s films to a Silly Putty Tom Hanks facsimile. In 1997’s Liar Liar, his once-in-a-generation gifts for physical what-the-fuckery1 were subjugated by the sentimental gravitas required for his first grown-up father role, a process to which he gladly submitted. After Liar Liar came Carrey’s short-lived Oscar bait period — in 1998’s The Truman Show and ’99’s Man on the Moon, he attempted a pair of postmodern commentaries about mass-media manipulation. They were meant to be his Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and he wound up with two Golden Globe awards as a consolation prize.

When Hanks reached for credibility as A Serious Grown-Up Actor, he was ingratiating, even dignified. When Carrey did it, he seemed mannered and overeager. Carrey pursued laughs like a cocker spaniel going all-in on an unguarded human leg; chasing down accolades with the same intensity wasn’t as endearing, at least not for skeptics like Carson. After coldly dismissing Carrey’s recent dramatic roles — “[His] acting usually comes down to variations on one of two basic attitudes: a vulnerable sweetness whose ultimate note is adolescent self-pity, and a manic hostility whose ultimate note is infantile rage” — Carson found himself pining for the kid-tested and critic-disapproved Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which one film scribe accused of having the “metabolism, logic and attention span of a peevish 6-year-old.”

Ace Ventura was Carrey’s Opportunity Knocks,2 a $15 million audition reel of random bits and celebrity impersonations by a talented sketch performer that was somehow mistaken for a real movie on the way to making more than $100 million. Junky and cheap-looking, Ace Ventura is the sort of film that will stick the plot under the mattress for several minutes to allow for an extended riff on Star Trek set inside an empty dolphin tank. Also: Tone Loc plays a police detective and there are cameos by Cannibal Corpse and Dan Marino. It’s a bit of a mess. But Ace Ventura also works as a showcase for Carrey’s unique skill set in a way that many of his “better” films don’t. He strides through the proceedings with a cartoonish swagger that recalls John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Faye Dunaway in Network, Deion Sanders during his Florida State days, and Bugs Bunny in drag. He looks like a star.

For Carson, Ace Ventura is Carrey’s Rosebud. “He’s lighthearted and frolicsome; he knows the movie doesn’t matter much,” Carson writes. “Just six years later, revving himself up to do that Jim Carrey thing for his eight-figure fee, he looks as burdened as the CEO of a company whose one and only product is creeping up on its sell-by date.”

Carson wasn’t the last film critic to nostalgically till the fallow terrain of Ace Ventura for traces of the raging comedic id that has been largely AWOL from Carrey’s later movies. In his review of 2011’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the New York Times‘s A.O. Scott noted “with a sigh, that [Carrey’s] rubbery limbs have lost a bit of stretch and his highly mobile face has acquired some lines.” He described Penguins as “an important stage in Mr. Carrey’s maturation, or at least his transition from nitwit man-child to goofy dad,” which is like saying The Canyons is a crucial phase in James Deen’s evolution from horizontal to vertical acting.

A more committed student of Carrey’s films would’ve noted that he had already earned his dad stripes way back on Liar Liar — it was just that now he was playing an older goofy dad. This is the flip side of being a bulletproof movie star: Jim Carrey presently exists in a perpetual state of creative stasis where “maturation” can only be measured by the number of lines on your famously funny face. He is in a place he cannot leave unless he keels over or is forcibly carried out. There is no satisfying answer for “To what?” because there is nowhere else to go.

Eternal Sunshine What people forget about Jim Carrey is that he’s an archetypical representative of the ’90s alt-rock generation, and that this is important to understanding the arc of his career. I don’t mean Carrey is representative of ’90s alt-comedy — he’s the alt-rock complement to the indie-ness of alt-comedy. Carrey was always edgy and “different” but in a more commercially viable way. On In Living Color, the most subversive network sketch show of its time, he was the most palatable3 cast member. His most iconic characters (Fire Marshall Bill, Vera De Milo) were catchy and grotesque, quotable and queasy — like a Nirvana song on Top 40 radio, Carrey stood out immediately but he was also reassuring in his own way, given his obvious kinship with establishment showbiz talents like Jerry Lewis and The Jerk–era Steve Martin. He was energetic, aggressively direct, sneakily handsome but not vain, and aligned with losers and freaks. Jim Carrey had an aura, and it was flannel-colored.

Alt-rock arguably peaked in 1994 — Kurt Cobain died, Soundgarden went platinum, and Green Day and Nine Inch Nails became synonymous with Woodstock. 1994 was also the single most momentous year of Carrey’s professional life: Between Ace Ventura, Dumb & Dumber, and The Mask, his first batch of star vehicles hauled in more than $700 million in global box office. The total budget for all three films: $55 million. In a Rolling Stone cover story the following year, Jim Carrey’s origin story finally started to take shape, and it was crafted for an Alternative Nation audience: Behind Carrey’s façade as a go-for-broke laffmeister was an angry, depressive young man still reeling from a troubled childhood. He describes growing up in Toronto and being forced in high school to work eight hours a night with his brother and sisters in the factory where his father was employed as an accountant. It reads like Oliver Twist and sounds like the Melvins’ Lysol. Amid these demoralizing environs, Carrey secretly harbored dreams of worldwide success (he was already a star in Toronto’s comedy scene by 17, and transplanted to L.A. two years later) and all-encompassing revenge.

“I lived my life just waiting for somebody to look at me the wrong way. I wanted it. I wanted to fucking do somebody in,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Fred Schruers.4 “I was 15, pushing this sweeper down the damn hallway of executive offices of people I don’t respect because they’re, you know, oppressing my father. I’d bury my arm in the wall, then I’d go through hours of elaborate conniving to come up with an alibi.”

Instead of burying his arm in another wall, Carrey made 1996’s The Cable Guy, the first time he (or anybody else) made $20 million for a movie and the last time he dared to openly antagonize his audience. Carrey plays a doofy unnamed psychopath (he calls himself Chip Douglas, which is a Gen X–friendly My Three Sons reference) who talks with a lisp and juts out his simian chin like a confrontational index finger in search of an enemy chest to pounce on. Carrey’s performance is extraordinarily unpleasant and plain old extraordinary — he kicks at the most extreme edges of his extroverted idiot persona, deconstructing what people liked about his past films and making those qualities appear predatory and repulsive. And he did it without the art-house safety net that Adam Sandler had for the similarly meta Punch-Drunk Love six years later. (The Cable Guy came out the same year as Happy Gilmore.) Jim Carrey making The Cable Guy was akin to a grunge band demolishing its instruments in order to illustrate how silly demolishing its instruments is.

People did not get it. The New York Times review of The Cable Guy said it “erases the boundary between anarchic humor and sociopathic malice” — and meant it as an insult. One of the few who dared to stand proudly amid the wreckage was producer Judd Apatow, who did uncredited rewrites on the script and helped to realize the vision Carrey had for the film. “I always thought that the script Lou Holtz Jr. wrote was great, and it’s what got us all very interested,” Apatow told New York Magazine in 2011. “But Jim wanted to change it significantly and make it much more of a comedic version of Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Unlawful Entry, whereas the original draft was a little bit more like a What About Bob? annoying-friend movie. It had a light punch to it, and we wanted to turn it into a thriller.”

As alienating as The Cable Guy was for the average mid-’90s Jim Carrey fan, it wasn’t his In Utero — he didn’t go away and crash in his backyard greenhouse in the film’s aftermath. It was more like his Insomniac, a pissed-off punk-rock pit stop on the way to becoming an institution. Looking back on his rise in a 2004 60 Minutes interview, Carrey pinned his success on the most alt of emotional states, desperation. “Desperation is a necessary ingredient to learning anything, or creating anything,” Carrey told Steve Kroft. “If you ain’t desperate at some point, you ain’t interesting.” In the ’00s and onward, his desperation was rendered moot.

Kick Ass 2 Jim Carrey on Filter’s “Hey Man Nice Shot,” taken from a playlist of favorite songs posted on iTunes in 2007: “I heard it was about Kurt Cobain, who was born in 1967 and died in 1994; both dates add up to 23.”

My favorite Jim Carrey movie from his post-’90s prime is probably the worst he ever starred in, 2007’s The Number 23. And not only because it compelled him to go amateur rock critic and link Filter with Cobain’s suicide via numerology. Here’s all you need to know about The Number 23: (1) It’s a shitty cover version of classic ’90s mind-fuck movies, particularly Lost Highway and Fight Club; (2) Carrey plays a brooding dogcatcher named Walter Sparrow who becomes obsessed with a detective novel that parallels his own life, except for the part about being a brooding dogcatcher; (3) the detective’s name is Fingerling; (4) the name of the book’s author is Topsy Kretts; (5) Carrey also plays Fingerling, who is heavily tattooed and plays the saxophone in a white undershirt and it goes without saying that this all looks completely stupid; (6) Sparrow and Fingerling might be the same person, and he/they is probably a murderer; (7) the lesson of The Number 23 is that people should never read books, lest they go insane; (8) carrying over the filmography-to-discography analogy, The Number 23 is Carrey’s Nickelback album.

Honest question: Why hasn’t Jim Carrey played more villains? He was discomfiting as The Riddler in the not-great Batman Forever. The character has a lot of familiar Carrey tropes: He opens the film as the frustrated nebbish Edward Nygma, who’s only able to harness his talent and intelligence once he turns his rage outward in obnoxious torrents of malevolent brilliance. Carrey usually relegates this kind of darkness to the subtext of his films. It lurks behind his standard “funny” mugging — teeth bared, eyes bugged out, cheeks stretched like a latex sock puppet, Carrey resembles a demon ripping its human vessel to shreds. He’s not an emotional cipher like Adam Sandler, who can robotically crank out the same high-concept $100 million comedy every summer with the same blank, bro-ish facial expression. Even when Jim Carrey is acting the cutup, there’s a hint of misery (or “low level of despair,” as he put it in the 60 Minutes interview) in his performances, and over time this misery has paralyzed his screen presence. He used to exorcise that angst in his films; now he carries it from role to role like a box of old CDs.

Kick-Ass 2 might not matter in the scope of Jim Carrey’s career, but I hold out modest hope that it will allow him to be interesting again. He plays Colonel Stars and Stripes, an ex-mobster turned born-again Christian and dubiously heroic vigilante — a larger-than-life “good guy” driven by questionable motivations who finds a socially acceptable outlet for expunging the acidic ectoplasm bubbling up inside him. It’s a role that suits him. Perhaps Jim Carrey can be present in a movie for once, even if he’s absent from the marketing.

Filed Under: Movies, Jim Carrey, Celebrities, career arc

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden