Establishing himself as an overnight star with last winter’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Carrey suggested a Jerry Lewis for the Age of Letterman. He showed a similar gift for extreme physical comedy—limbs and facial features of an alarming sponginess—but in place of Lewis’s self-pity, there was a glint of hostility in his eyes. This may merely have been a reflection of the character he was playing, a supreme moron who nonetheless managed to make idiots out of everyone else. But it also seemed to have something to do with Carrey himself. You didn’t get the feeling, as he squawked and shouted and rolled his eyes and alternately pursed and curled his lips, that he actually enjoyed having to squelch his dignity this way. Basically, this was slapstick informed by sarcastic disdain. That probably wasn’t what made Carrey such a hit. But it’s what gave him his distinctiveness, his edge.
The Mask is a natural follow-up, in that it squeezes out even more of Carrey’s humanity: Thanks to Industrial Light & Magic’s computer-animation techniques (and brilliant makeup by Greg Cannom), Carrey turns into a human cartoon. As a nerdy bank clerk, he discovers an ancient mask that, inhabited by some prankish spirit, transforms him into something suggesting Puck on steroids. His head becomes large and green (and shaped, it struck me, like John Glenn’s). His eyes swing out like yo-yos. His limbs stretch and loop with boneless ease. He sproings around the city like a pogo stick and a top—combined. But these effects, for all their vividness and color, already feel slightly dated. There is nothing in The Mask as impressive, for instance, as the computer trick by which Gary Sinise’s legs are “erased” and the actor rendered an amputee in Forrest Gump.
And what of Carrey? When not careening about, he pauses, for a regretfully brief nanosecond, and tosses off uncanny takeoffs of movie cliches and stars. But that wide, mirthless grin and that arch, knowingly fatuous delivery grow tiring. After a while he comes across as Paul Lynde in a cobra head. And it’s no help that this character seems to be a direct descendent of Jack Nicholson’s candy-suited Joker and Michael Keaton’s leering vaudevillian Beetlejuice.
Carrey’s best work, actually, is as the sweet-natured bank clerk, although even there he never stays altogether in character. Those lips are always on the verge of curling in mockery. Meanwhile the movie is all but carried off in the small but determined jaws of a Jack Russell terrier named Max.
The great thing about dogs is, they never have attitude. (PG-13)