MovieBob - Intermission

When Jim Carrey Ruled the World

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Once upon a time in the 90s, a little-known comedian took the box office by storm.

This is the story of one of the greatest hot streaks in Hollywood history.

For about three years there, standup comedian turned TV sketch performer turned movie actor Jim Carrey was the biggest movie star on the planet — perhaps the last human pop-culture phenomenon to become such without the approval of The Internet. Between 1994 and 1997, the Canadian-born comic would go from “that white guy on the black sketch show” to ubiquity that few movie stars have ever achieved, reigning over the box-office with a string of smash hits that were the envy of every other comedy star of the time.

This weekend, Dumb & Dumber To, Carrey’s first return to one of his classic roles in two decades, opens wide in theaters — reuniting him with the co-star and filmmakers who were at his side at the precise moment when he was the brightest star in all of show business. With that in mind, let’s remember the halcyon days that got us here…

The quintessential 90s comedian star-vehicle, where not much adds up (what does being an animal-loving private eye, a nigh-superhuman lover and talking with your butt have to do with each other, exactly?) except that it all exists to give Carrey breathing room to do his thing. The story involving a kidnapped football mascot is disposable (and its big reveal is depressingly transphobic even through a “back then” lens) but funny is funny and even today it’s a marvel to see Carrey transform non-jokes into winners (“Aaaaallrighty then!”) by sheer force of will.

THE MASK (1994)
Once upon a time, it was actually easier to get gimmicky indie comics made into movies than anything from DC or Marvel. The Mask comes from that realm, a loose adaptation of a high-concept comic that mostly serves as an excuse for Carrey to augment his human-cartoon physical comedy with CGI. The effects haven’t aged particularly well, but it’s still a diverting action-comedy; and even though she went on to be a huge star in her own right Cameron Diaz’s entrance still makes you go “Wow! Who is that!?”

DUMB & DUMBER (1994)
Whatever else became of everyone involved in this, at least they’ll always have… well, this — one of the best comedies of the 90s.

It’s hard to remember, but what felt revolutionary about Dumb & Dumber back in the day was how loose and freewheeling it was. Comedies of the early 90s were largely built on gimmicky “high concepts” or familiar star power, but here was a movie that opted to chuck all that and let Carrey and Jeff Daniels go to town in a “two idiots on a road trip” scenario (like I said, no high-concept here — there’s no reason they’re so dumb, they just… are) so broad there might as well not have been a plot at all.

Even at the time, people were calling it a likely high-point for Carrey, but it now feels like one of the crowning achievements for most everyone who touched it. The Farrelly Brothers certainly haven’t made anything to equal it since (don’t even start with There’s Something About Mary, which has aged about as well as a case of Crystal Pepsi) and it’s hard to call any of Carrey’s comedy turns truly iconic after this — though their second collaboration in Me, Myself & Irene in 2000 comes pretty close.

Batman Forever was the nadir of Hollywood’s superhero-as-star-vehicle obsession in the early 90s, a film that unironically dropped the two biggest names of the moment (Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones) into ill-suited villain roles and somehow expected to not end up as broad parody — or at least not get called on it until the next sequel.

Carrey is game and does what he can with the part, but his Riddler makes no sense conceptually — he doesn’t even riddle all that much, and his angle and big scheme feel more suited to a character like The Mad Hatter. His chemistry with Jones, at least, makes for some memorable one-off bits.

Man, but it feels like more time passed between these two movies than actually did.

The original Ace Ventura launched Carrey as a box-office megastar largely by accident: Pre-Internet market-analysts had no real clue just how massively-popular he was with the too-young-but-watching-anyway fans of In Living Color, and thus how big they’d turn out for a low-budget “funny cop” movie that was clearly aiming for an adult audience. And so the sequel becomes effectively a raunchier-than-usual kids’ movie, with Ace going to Africa to mediate a tribal dispute about oh who cares look he does more gags with animals in this one. It’s fine, though many fans remember it as being a downgrade from the original.

Carrey’s first box-office dud became as legendary (in reverse, of course) as his hits almost immediately upon release: Depending on who you ask this was either a mistake that blew a hole in an otherwise flawless run of victories or a misunderstood masterpiece that didn’t get its due from a moviegoing public that just wanted Ace Ventura again.

In truth, it’s just a basic misfire. Carrey doesn’t have enough to work with as the psychotic TV-fanatic stalking Ben Stiller’s sad-sack bachelor, and the big “message” it builds to is little more than “too much TV is bad for you, huh?” It has some amusing parts, including a standout sequence set at Medieval Times, but overall it’s most noteworthy aspect is being an outlier — and not a particularly interesting one.

LIAR LIAR (1997)
Carrey’s “comeback” feature after Cable Guy is another winner, and provides a nice closing of the book on the era when he was so on fire he could turn out an audience on a premise as head-scratchingly simple as a trial lawyer afflicted with a curse that make him incapable of speaking even minor untruth. It’s still one of his best turns, what might otherwise have been a one-joker feature transformed into a minor classic just by him being so damn funny.

Liar mostly brought the era of Jim Carrey’s box-office majesty to a close. His first stabs at drama and Award Season recognition would come next in the form of The Truman Show and Man on The Moon, with a brief and welcome return to old-school hijinks with Me, Myself & Irene. He’s had hits and big notices since then, but it’s unlikely that even Jim Carrey could ever reconquer the world like Jim Carrey once did.


About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.