I Love You, Jim Carrey

Watching the exhil­ar­at­ing ‘l’amour fou’ movie ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ recently I found myself fall­ing in love with Jim Carrey all over again — after sev­eral years of tak­ing him for granted.

So much so I for­got he was there all over again. The role of Steven Russell the gay con-man is one he was born to play. It’s a return to the Jim Carrey of The Cable Guy — his best and most over­looked film until now. But a bit more grown up, slightly less scary, and with Ewan McGregor instead of Matthew Broderick as the object of his swirl­ing atten­tions. I don’t fancy Carrey, and I sus­pect McGregor prob­ably doesn’t either, but Carrey in full-on comic mad­man mode is impossible to say no to.

So I thought I’d post this love let­ter to him orgin­ally pub­lished in the Independent on Sunday back in 2002.

carrey I Love You, Jim Carrey

Fears of a Clown

He’s the funny guy fam­ous for his devi­ant comic roles. So what is it about Jim Carrey, asks Mark Simpson, that makes him the per­fect embod­i­ment of American psychosis?

(Independent On Sunday 19 May 2002)

Whenever I finally con­fess to my friends that I’m a Jim Carrey fan I almost always get the same reac­tion. “Oh, I see,” they say, look­ing me up and down as if really see­ing me for the first time. “Yes, well, I can’t stand him, I’m afraid.” Then they pull a slightly sour expres­sion as if I’d far­ted and explain: “You see, It’s the…” “…gurn­ing” I say, com­plet­ing their sen­tence. “I know. That’s exactly what I like about him.” Clutching for some middle ground they then offer: “I quite liked him in The Truman Show, though”. It’s at this point that I quickly change the subject.

It’s all a case of mis­taken iden­tity: they see a vul­gar spas­ming idiot where I see a god of com­edy… who is a vul­gar, spas­ming idiot. Hence people who don’t like Jim Carrey will prob­ably like his new movie The Majestic. Like The Truman Show (1998), it is played straight(faced), and very com­pet­ently. People who like Jim Carrey, how­ever, will pull their lower lip over their fore­head in frustration.

Appropriately enough, the film is about mis­taken iden­tity. Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a Hollywood B-movie scriptwriter who is caught up in the Anti-Red para­noia the 1950s and sacked by his stu­dio and black­lis­ted as a Commie. Of course, Carrey isn’t really a Commie but just “a horny guy” who was try­ing to get into the pants of a girl at col­lege who happened to be a Commie. But the cold war­ri­ors see what they want to see and Carrey is threatened with a subpoena.

So he gets drunk, crashes his car and suf­fers amne­sia, stag­ger­ing into small­town America where he is mis­taken for someone more inter­est­ing again – Luke Trimble, a young Marine who failed to return from the Second World War. The still-grieving town, hav­ing lost sev­eral sons, has a form of mass hys­teria: benign and heal­ing where the McCarthyite vari­ety is malign and divis­ive, and every­one believes he is Trimble, even Luke’s father and his former girl­friend. Carrey/Appleton, still with no idea who he is, decides that he might as well be who they want him to be.

However, there’s another case of mis­taken iden­tity in this movie: Jim Carrey has clearly mis­taken him­self for Jimmy Stewart. Carrey makes a pass­able Stewart, but why on earth should someone who is the unnat­ural love-child of Dionysus and Jerry Lewis want to be Jimmy Stewart? Besides, Stewart isn’t even dead – Tom Hanks, after all, is still with us.

Mr Carrey, who has just turned 40, is ranked num­ber five in Hollywood’s “star power” rat­ings – which effect­ively meas­ures whether we see what we want to see when we look at a screen actor. At 98.46 he comes behind Mr Cruise, Mr Hanks and Ms Roberts who all score a “per­fect” 100, and Mr Gibson at 98.68. Although he is already one of the most fam­ous and wealth­i­est men in America (and recently announced this by buy­ing his own $30 mil­lion jet), Mr Carrey would very much like to close that 1.54 point gap and be a per­fect 100. Hence the Jimmy Stewart preoccupation.

Carrey’s suc­cess of course has come largely through his mani­acal, edgy, inspired, disturbed/disturbing – and gurn­ing – per­form­ances in films such as Dumb and Dumber (1994), Ace Ventura Pet Detective (1994), The Mask (1994), and Liar, Liar (1997). He even almost suc­ceeded in res­cuing the rub­ber cod­piece melt­down that was Batman Forever (1995), with his tox­ic­ally camp inter­pret­a­tion of The Riddler. Alas, Carrey’s ambi­tions are “big­ger” than such roles allow. He wants to be mis­taken for that truly freaky thing: a well-rounded, redeemed human-being. Frankly, his green-furred mis­an­thropic Grinch (The Grinch, 2000) was a more sym­path­etic char­ac­ter than that.

Carrey seems to be a curi­ous, furi­ous ten­sion between a crav­ing for revenge and ador­a­tion. From a Canadian blue-collar trailer park fam­ily with a sickly, hys­ter­ical mother and a manic-depressive father, he tried to please and dis­tract in equal meas­ure. He wrote him­self a cheque for $15 mil­lion when he was start­ing out in the 1980s. (In a curi­ously ambi­val­ent ges­ture, he placed the cheque in his father’s coffin). Having suc­ceeded, he sur­passed fel­low Hollywood comedi­ans such as Steve Martin, Mike Myers and William Shatner – like them, he is a Canadian whose job it is to be mis­taken for an American.

So it’s per­haps no coin­cid­ence that in most of his films he seems to have “iden­tity issues” – dark­ness, dis­in­teg­ra­tion and exhil­ar­at­ing release is always just a few facial tics away. In The Mask, appro­pri­ately enough the film which brought him to the widest pub­lic atten­tion, he plays a mild-mannered nerd who dis­cov­ers a mask which imbues its wearer with the spirit of the Norse god of mis­chief. In Liar, Liar he’s a law­yer beat­ing him­self up to stop him­self from telling the truth. In Me Myself and Irene (2000), he plays a mild-mannered nerdy cop who keeps flip­ping into a devi­ant Mr Hyde personality

And then there is the The Cable Guy (1996), in which he plays a nerdy cable installer who wants nice Matthew Broderick to be his best buddy and flips over into a com­pel­ling psy­chosis when Matthew dis­ap­points him. Of all Carrey’s movies, The Cable Guy is the one which comes closest to the truth of his screen per­sona and also per­haps the truth of the best com­edy – that it is about des­per­a­tion and dark­ness. Carrey is like the Id mon­ster in Forbidden Planet on the ram­page and with a lisp. He turns in one of the most ori­ginal per­form­ances ever seen in a movie – and most reck­less, given that this was his first $20 mil­lion role.

So when the crit­ics pas­ted it and audi­ences used to his “alrighty!” slap­stick hated it, Carrey and his entour­age pan­icked and scrambled to make sure that his future pro­jects would not expose so much of his dark side: that people would see what they wanted to see, instead of the rage of Caliban in the mir­ror. Ironically, even a schmaltzy non-comedy film like The Majestic requires the know­ledge of the dark, Satanic Carrey to sus­tain our interest in his every­guy per­form­ance. The gurn­ing lies underneath.

Carrey is a man clearly pos­sessed by voices – the trashy voices of American pop cul­ture we all hear inside our heads: Captain Kirk, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Elvis, Lucille Ball. He’s a latter-day “Legion”, the Biblical mad­man of Gadarene who spoke in a hun­dred voices, whose evil spir­its were exor­cised by Christ (and who, evicted, promptly com­mand­eered a herd of swine and drove them squeal­ing over a cliff into the sea). Unfortunately, given his “heal­ing” tend­en­cies in his straight movies, Carrey also some­times seems to think he’s Christ too. (In his next movie, Bruce Almighty, he is set to play God.)

Actually, Carrey is someone much more import­ant than God: he is America. At least in terms of his con­tra­dic­tions: hysterical/professional, needy/maniacal, narcissistic/high-minded, base/aspirational, idealistic/hypocritical, cynical/sentimental, amnesiac/media-addicted. In The Majestic Carrey’s char­ac­ter recalls a movie plot but still can’t remem­ber who he is: “You mean you can remem­ber movies but not your own life?” says Laurie Holden. “That’s ter­rible!” Maybe, but it’s not so unusual.

Like The Truman Show, The Majestic ends with Carrey’s char­ac­ter renoun­cing the inau­thenti­city of fame for “real life”. Fortunately for us, the real Jim Carrey is never likely to make that choice.