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.
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.