Monday, March 18, 2013

Riske Business: Jim the Great and Powerful

Recently, during the podcast for Oz the Great and Powerful, I made a crack at the expense of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Surprisingly, I started to feel guilty after saying it. A couple of minutes later I figured out why. I felt bad for knocking a new Jim Carrey movie. I was shocked. What’s this all about?

I’ve always been a fan of Jim Carrey -- mostly in the early '90s on In Living Color or in The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. I liked his manic characterizations and "anything goes" approach. He seemed like he was having a great deal of fun and inviting us all to be in on the joke. Like the best comedians, he was not keeping us at arm’s length. Then came The Cable Guy in 1996 and I was disappointed, more so in the movie than with Carrey. He was stretching and trying something dark, but the movie was unpleasant and rather heavy-handed in its message. Let’s just say at that point I went off the super-fan wagon and became just a casual fan. I wouldn’t avoid a Jim Carrey movie, but I was in no rush to head out to the theater for one. Here and there he’d have a good movie, but just as often it was nothing to reflect on.

So what gives?

Now I’m thinking about his career, his overall body of work, and I have to say I’m impressed. Allow me to take a brief autobiographical pit stop. About 6 months ago I stopped performing improv comedy in Chicago, which I had been doing off-and-on since I was 17 years old. In that experience, I learned a lot about comedians and about audiences. I know enough to say now that Jim Carrey’s got IT. He is an example of a great comedian -- the kind a sketch or improv comic should aspire to be.

Here are 3 elements that make Jim Carrey a great comedian:

1) The Kid is Still There: One quote of Carrey’s that I love is “I have an unnatural need to be noticed and liked.” Reading up on his bio, Carrey as a boy would perform routines at the end of school for his classmates. His performances from Ace Ventura to Dumb and Dumber are natural extensions of this.  While completely lacking in manners and social awareness, these turns are not mean-spirited. He’s just an energetic kid that wants nothing more than to be silly, do funny voices and make faces to get you to laugh. All comedians want to be able to tap into their inner child. You’d be surprised how many improvisers I’ve seen that can’t do anything more than stand in one spot on stage and say the same sarcastic things the same sarcastic way every time out. Being a kid in performance takes a lot of skill.
2) Pain Informs His Comedy: Carrey, like most comedians, has the sad clown persona at times. This comes from a real place. His family was poor and living out of their car when Carrey was a teenager. Depression eventually set in. Carrey has talked about it before, trying to use comedy as a cure for those hardships: “I’m charming, but I dip into the Prozac now and then” and “My focus is to forget the pain, mock the pain, reduce it.” This has helped him tremendously in his more dramatic roles (Man on the Moon, The Truman Show, The Majestic) since he is able to shift down a couple of gears.  IMDB had an interesting observation about Carrey: many of his characters are ordinary men whole lives are changed by supernatural or otherwise unseen forces. It’s relatable to ask big questions of the universe when you have no answers for yourself. In my experience with comedy, the biggest laughs come from recognition, the moment when you portray something that anyone in the audience can say happened to them. Everyone has been sad or felt vulnerable. To be able to act that in comedy is gold.

3) He’s Sincere: Carrey (in his movies) seems like a genuine, good-natured guy, and that’s the type of comedian audiences want to follow long-term. He’s not preening or in love with himself. He is also open to emoting and being a little bit corny at times. Earnestness works. It’s longer-lasting than clever.
Still not buying it? How about this -- he’s great for what he's not!
•    His humor isn’t dependent on getting high, drunk or hating on women - Project X or 21 and Over
•    He knows that cursing is not funny unto itself - Danny McBride
•    He doesn’t hold for laughs - Mike Myers (thanks Patrick for making me aware of this)
•    His career is not an inside joke - Adam Sandler
•    He doesn’t seem constantly confused - Owen and Luke Wilson
•    He doesn’t act like every subsequent thing he says is G-D’s gift to comedy - Vince Vaughn
•    He knows when he looks out the window if it is raining outside - Zooey Deschanel does not
•    He doesn’t get naked ALL THE TIME in a form of second-hand narcissism - Lena Dunham. We get it! This is not the body we usually see naked on TV.
Add it all up and I think Jim Carrey might be the best film comedian of his era. He continues to stretch himself and grow. He has not taken easy sequels to his past successes (not yet, at least). There’s no trace of the hatefulness of modern comedies in his work. It’s been long enough. Let’s give credit where credit is due.

Oh yeah, I saw his new movie, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Here is a short review, followed by a list of my 5 favorite Jim Carrey movies.

I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments. Do you feel the same way about Jim Carrey? What movies from his work are your favorites? What other movie comedians do you feel are overdue for some recognition?

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone Mini Review

Maybe I was just in a good mood, but I had a really pleasant time during The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It’s not a classic comedy or anything, but it’s consistently funny and has two set pieces (one involving Steve Buscemi in the middle of the movie and one at the very end) that are blissfully demented. There are a lot of good throw-away lines. Jim Carrey shows a real knack for being a supporting player and perks up every scene he is in. It’s a shame that the movie has such a limp resolution to his character.

The aspect of Burt Wonderstone I enjoyed the most is this could easily be about comedians instead of magicians. Is Jim Carrey’s character really all that different than Dane Cook (the guy who every other professional thinks is a fraud yet is massively popular)? The movie deals with competitive rivalry, mentor-protégé relationships, going back to basics when you’re lost as an artist and the rush you can get from the gratification of an entertained audience.

Go see it. It’s a movie that swings for doubles and often connects. Plus it’s got Britta from Community! And a casino named DOUG! Most importantly, none of the funniest parts are in the trailer!
My Favorite Jim Carrey Movies

1)    Dumb and Dumber - His funniest performance. Silly, witty and stupid.2
2)    The Majestic - Stop picking on this! Sappy but underrated.
3)    Liar Liar - Here he's at the height of his talent.
4)    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Most comforting post-breakup movie ever made.
5)    The Mask – Fun and made by people who cared.


  1. Amazing assessment of Carrey. I think I love him even more now after reading this than I already did. Interestingly enough, I also did my own mental reassessment of Jim Carrey and realized what a consistantly great talent he has been. I would throw The Truman Show in on a list of great Carrey movies, but I think the ones you mentioned are truely his best. I love that he's successfully shown that he can be both effectively funny and effectively serious, but I honestly think he's one of the greatest comedic minds working today, especially in comparison to all those other names you mentioned. And he seems like such a pleasent guy, which I appreciate.

    Also, it is my understanding that he is the best part of Burt Wonderstone. But I'll be honest, I'm not super excited to see it, and there hasn't been much to inspire me to do so. The cast seems impressive, though.

  2. Adam,
    Great article and great perspective. i will just say that I am one of the voices out there that defends Cable Guy. It is one of the darkest, funniest movies out there. The chemistry between Jim and Matthew Broderick is fantastic. Whenever I take the family out to Medieval Times (which is more times than I care to admit) we always have to put in the Cable Guy and watch the Kirk/Spock is a must see!

    Also...a shout out to Ace Ventura 2! Getting birthed out of a Rhino alone merits it an honorable mention!

    1. Adam,

      Another great read. Your insights are always very interesting. Back when I was growing up, Jim Carrey was the first comedian I ever idolized. I remember I would try to make stretchy faces in my bathroom mirror to imitate him. I agree that his sincerity is one of the things that puts him in a different stratosphere for comedic actors.

      I have to agree with GDiddy in defending the Cable Guy. There are so many memorable scenes, although I agree the message does get heavy handed. Jim Carrey plays his role perfectly. My favorite scene is the Porno Password one. Oh man.

      I was watching this interview from the Nantucket Movie Festival that has Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, and Bill Hader (on Netflix). Chris Rock, who worked with Jim Carrey on In Living Color, mentioned that Jim Carrey was not a comedy snob, like the previous castmates Rock left at SNL. He said Carrey would get a joke/bit/suggestion from the janitor if he thought it was funny. Thought that was an interesting tidbit.

    2. There is such a clear and better ending for The Cable Guy that would have made the movie a minor classic, but I guess I can't fault the studio for not wanting to pay the most beloved comic actor in the country more than anyone had ever been paid and then leave him laying on that satellite dish.

    3. Agreed. I really like The Cable Guy and appreciate how dark it gets. Leave it to me to want the movie to go even darker, ending with the death of a national treasure. Can we agree this is an Ambitious Failure?

    4. Maybe I need to re-watch The Cable Guy??? I've just never had that watch where I like it without a lot of reservations. I guess I respect it more than I enjoy it.

  3. I have a couple of unwatched Jim Carrey films in my unwatched pile of still-shrink-wrapped media ("Bruce Almighty" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," both on HD-DVD). "Eternal Sunshine" is in the top 5 films of one of the regulars too (Erika or Alex I think) so I've been meaning to check it out. I'll do that Adam, your article is pushing me. :-)

    Carrey is OK but his 'love me' attempts to mug for attention try so hard that they become off-putting to me. The only stuff I've seen of his that I completely liked was "The Truman Show," and for me the brilliance of that movie falls as much on director Peter Weir, writer Andrew Niccol and co-star Ed Harris than on Carrey realizing dialing down the crazy would work (kudos for recognizing that at least). Everything else of Carrey's I've seen (the "Ace Ventura" movies, "Dumb and Dumber," "The Cable Guy," "The Mask," "Me, Myself and Irene," etc.) I just find him an overwhelming, trying-too-hard, unfunny camera hog. It takes all kinds I guess.

    My recent new-to-me movies:

    3/16/13: Jess Franco does "Eyes Without a Face" (with boobies!) in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF (1962) on TCM-HD Underground.

    I'm shy, but at least I'm not like David Caruso in "Jade." Judd Apatow's THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN: UNRATED (2005) on USA Network.

    1. Eternal Sunshine is a very unusual, very good movie. I don't want to put too much pressure on it because that will only detract from it, but I have a lot of affection for it. Considering how far it was from Carrey's usual family fare, it deserves some recognition.

    2. I can see where you're coming from that Peter Weir, who is a director I really like, Andrew Niccol and Ed Harris all had a hand in making The Truman Show great, but I wouldn't sell Carrey too short. He was still excellent in that movie, and as his first departure (I think?...) from his usual crazy comedy, it is a noteworthy performance.

      I also second a recommendation for Eternal Sunshine. I didn't like it at first, because it was SO different from anything he's ever done, and I think it hit me too hard, but seeing it again I realized how great it was. It's most definitely worth checking out.

    3. Eternal Sunshine was interesting for me. I saw it the first time before ever being dumped badly and it did nothing for me. Then I saw it in my breakup malaise and it was a completely different movie.

    4. Give me some time to work the courage to watch "Eternal Sunshine" because, right now, I'm not in the mood to watch romantic movies, or listen to love songs on the radio, or watch other couples walking around being happy... if you catch my drift. :'(

  4. Nice article Adam I agree with your top 5 save for Cable Guy and The Mask. There are some good jokes in those movies but overall I wasn't totally along with those ones.

    Truman Show-An excellent film that had Carrey being a bit more dramatic but not totally losing that comic charm we grew up on.

    Ace Ventura Pet Detective- I admit its stupid but for me its just gloriously stupid I can still watch it.

    I do appreciate seeing Jim doing some more ensemble pieces as of late with Burt Wonderstone and the upcoming Kick Ass 2. If I have any problem with Jim is that sometimes he can almost hijack a movie, I really hope we don't get any more Popplers Penguins.

    While I guess she isn't a comedian technically speaking but Amy Adams has really impressed me in her roles in The Muppets and Enchanted (a movie that while isn't great is better than it deserved to be with her in it.) She does good dramatic work too and does something I wish more actors in comedy would do and that is not go for the easy joke.

    I'll be up in Chicago in a couple months to catch some improv any place in particular I should hit up?

    1. Tom, you can't go wrong with Improv Olympic (now technically called IO). They're in Lakeview by Wrigley Field so check the Cubs schedule to make sure you're not going on a game day.

    2. Tom, Joseph is right on with IO. Some really good shows are Cook County Social Club, any of The Harold shows, The Deltones (music improv), Whirled News Tonight. My personal favorite is Felt. It's improv with hand puppets. Very funny especially when someone is talking because the show stops for a puppet stare down at the talker.

      Second City is also a good place to stop. The Mainstage shows are your best bet - it's the most seasoned performers and the best writing.

  5. Wonderstone was a pleasant surprise for me, considering how dreadful the trailers were. It's a solid movie, though not that great, but every scene with Alan Arkin is gold. (BTW, the kid playing Judah is pretty darn good in his small role.)

  6. Great read Riske.

    Ace Ventura was such a big deal for me when I was a teenager. It just felt so fresh, new, crazy over the top and very rewatchable. A lot of fun. ( least it was at the time, I havent seen it for a while now I dare risk to ruin the magic?).

    But I think Carey was very much a case of deminishing returns. (Jim-inishing Returns?), In that he has a schtick that works really well, but like most forms of fun entertainment, once youve seen it, youve seen it.
    He's good at character, he can act and he can tell a story, but when the central premise for him to be on screen is for him to do his thang... it can get tiresome. Kind of like Robin Williams in interviews.

    Overall I would say that I like Jim Carey, but I did tire of him. I may be due for a revisit, espcially after reading your perspective Adam.

  7. Fun article, Adam, and I agree with you for the most part - I'm realizing now that there is quite a few Jim Carey movies I haven't seen and/or should see again because, as much as I like the guy, I'm struggling with what movies of his I liked so much. It's like I'm more into the idea of Jim Carey, than anything he's actually done. When I think of the couple movies that have made me laugh most in the past 10-15 years its There's Something About Mary and Meet the Parents - as much as I like the 4 out of 5 movies on your JC list I've seen, none of them top those two in terms of pure gut-bustery. Though I suppose Jim probably does have the edge over Ben on the overall average quality of their bodies of work.

    I also agree that Jim seems like a decent guy (Canadian, so OF COURSE) though he did go down a notch for me when I heard the story of him writing a post-dated cheque for $10 million to himself, like that's how he was going to measure his success - boooo to that.