[Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of personal essays about Jim Carrey written by RF, a friend of Pussy Goes Grrr.]
I was probably five or six years old when I first saw Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and I haven’t rewatched it – or any other Tom Shadyac movies – for about fifteen years, not until this week in fact, when I watched several of them in a row. I watched the DVD specials, too, and saw Shadyac behind the scenes: he looks like a bearish, wide-faced version of Howard Stern, and his directions are always gentle and mildly self-deprecatory – I would do the scene this way, but then what do I know?
My favorite extras were the Ace Ventura ones, especially the part where Shadyac mumbles into the camera about how he “could’ve gone to law school.” I smiled when he said that, and then I brought a fistful of popcorn to my mouth. Here’s a guy with a sense of humor. Here’s a guy who’s pretty smart, who’s making a movie about another guy who wears pants with vertical stripes, who’s the world’s only “pet detective,” who has this thing going on with his mouth and this weird bouffant and talks like he’s chewing his words – Shadyac must have understood how absurd this is, and so he cracked some jokes about it while the camera was still rolling. One joke is about the acting ability of the Miami Dolphins – the team figures prominently in the movie’s plot – and another is about Ace Ventura, Jim Carrey’s character, and how unpleasant he (Ventura) is to work with. The studio has put Shadyac up to this, and he sees that – but, martyr that he is, he’s going to go through with it and make the movie, accept the paycheck, grumbling all the while about how he could’ve amounted to something greater. How he so regrets having to sacrifice his integrity to be a studio shill. How he’d kill to be able to make dramas right now: serious dramas, with Nicole Kidman in them, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise getting a divorce, or having marital problems, or having not enough sex or too much of it. But he’s young, and he’s got to start somewhere. All the greats got their start directing movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, allowed the AD to film them making wry comments about the script’s contents, the clumsy, staff-written jokes involving talking asses and women’s panties. Any droll, self-hating remark made by the film’s director easily trumps the eighth-rate humor of the script, brings to light the obvious inconsistencies of the plot and the shoddy workmanship of the writers and the miserable conditions under which the actors – all of them strivers, too – must work to please cigar-wielding producers, studio executives, financiers.
But it would be wrong to suggest that Shadyac’s asides reflect any desire to be behind some other camera besides his own – Kubrick’s, say, or even Tim Burton’s. He is very happy on the Ace Ventura set, and that’s because Ace Ventura is a fantastic movie. And how, all snobbery aside, but really, how would a movie where a guy in striped pants manipulates his buttocks to make it look like it’s talking – and does this for an entire conversation, one that’s actually important for those few viewers attempting to follow the plot – how could this movie even be remotely watchable, let alone good? The answer has everything to do with the buttocks’ owner, Jim Carrey.
Shadyac is Hitchcock to Carrey’s Cary Grant: Carrey shows up in a handful of Shadyac films, most of which were career-making. Their mutual debut was Ace Ventura (1994). The movie’s success spawned a sequel, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995), which got handed over to Steve Oederkerk to direct. The two collaborated on Liar Liar in 1997, when it looked like both were at this professional apogee and, at least as far as the studios were concerned, could do absolutely no wrong. But both got bigger – the DVD extras make this obvious for Shadyac especially, you can watch him becoming more demure and self-possessed as the ‘90s roll by, wearing his ponytail with subtlety and grace, fully aware of his career’s impressive trajectory – and this culminated in 2003’s Bruce Almighty, where Carrey plays a newscaster given unique access to the godhead by Morgan Freeman, who plays God.
Carrey is even more Shadyac’s Cary Grant because Carrey is so obviously the man Shadyac wants to be. Just as Hitchcock wished Grant’s suaveness upon himself, Shadyac wants Carrey’s comic ability. The Shadyacian camera adores Jim Carrey, is attentive to Carrey’s every facial tic in a way no other camera (outside that of the Farrelly brothers’, perhaps) could ever be. The outtakes from Liar Liar are projected over the end credits. I don’t know if that was a seminal move, but it sure as hell felt seminal in 1997 when I got to watch Jim Carrey even more after the movie was over. It seems fitting that Shadyac’s most recent collaboration with Jim Carrey has Carrey playing a normal guy who gets omniscient powers. The movie is Carrey’s apotheosis: Shadyac acknowledges that Carrey has become famous in that incredible way where he’s not just a gawked-at, tweeted-about celebrity, a guy who looks fat in this or that photo in People, but rather a god among men, a “geyser of talent,” as Laura Linney once put it. Jim Carrey has a warm, funny-connoting name like Robin Williams or Jerry Lewis. He appears to be saving the world just by bugging his eyes out and pretending to have an overbite. Shadyac knows this better than anyone.
But, OK, so I still haven’t answered my own question. How is Ace Ventura a fantastic movie? My memories don’t go that far back, and for some reason (maybe I’ll expound on this in a different essay someday) my long-term memory is atrociously bad, and because of that my childhood is a sort of ragtag assemblage of colors and sensations and big, weird grown-up’s faces – that is, I found I’ve fabricated a lot of “memories” to fill in certain gaps – but one thing I remember for sure is being six and being asked if I want dessert and responding, “Allrighty then,” which is Ace Ventura’s catchphrase, and saying the same catchphrase at school where everyone else was saying it. I remember moving around my house – the house I was conceived and raised in – like Jim Carrey, doing an exaggerated tiptoe or leaning against walls in a “too-cool-for-school” way, jutting my jaw, making the overbite. These are some of my earliest memories. In footie pajamas, I would await the scene where Carrey rescues the puppy from the mean man, then the scene where all the animals in Carrey’s apartment come out of hiding and flock to him. I saw this movie so many times that I began to look forward just to seeing Carrey’s face. Like Robin Williams, he was dutifully there, doing his thing, being silly on camera, and had been doing so since before I was born. Yet unlike Williams, Carrey seemed both old and my age, a kid in a grown-up’s body. (Williams, with his wide face and strangely parted hair and tanned-uncle look could not possibly appear this way to me.) Carrey acted crazy, like I wanted to act when my teacher forced me to do a page of subtraction problems. I, too, wanted to make my mouth into a frustrated U-shape and say vvhhhuhhhhmmm vhhhhhuuuuhhhhmmm. I wanted to wear a shirt with birds on it and spin in a circle and do twelve double takes before finishing a sentence. An adult would call this behavior annoying, but I would call it natural – nay, necessary – and would be willing to engage in a spirited debate with anyone who thought otherwise.
Rewatching Ace Ventura, I realize that I missed a lot. My dad was always fast-forwarding the VCR, and not because we’d hit a boring part, as he’d claimed, but because Ace Ventura was having Animal House-style sex with Courteney Cox and making jokes about his lightning speed refractory period. The German character actor Udo Kier (Armageddon, My Own Private Idaho, Breaking the Waves, etc.) is in the film for some reason, which is cause for celebration. And the jokes about Ray Finkle (Sean Young), villain and erstwhile kicker for the Miami Dolphins, involve paranoia and psychosis and are truly disturbing. The movie is a bizarre comedy-noir-thing that was clearly made for adults, but has the childlike Jim Carrey at its center. Even now, even at the ultra-sophisticated age of twenty-one, I found myself laughing so hard at Ace Ventura that I wept a few times. (It’s the first time I’ve wept at this movie, by the way, because children are pretty much incapable of crying while laughing and as a six-year-old I found the concept paradoxical and bizarre. Which, like most adult things, it is.) I was endeared to Carrey, to everything he did. I rooted for him just like I did sixteen years ago. I was actually invested in whether or not he figures out who stole the Miami Dolphins’ mascot – it was hard not to be. A pet detective! What a funny idea! He’s a pet detective who can also solve crimes involving people!
I was once told this fact – I don’t think it was pop neuroscience, because I learned it in a college class called Behavioral Neuroscience – that we actually have clusters of neurons in our brains dedicated to recognizing faces that are important to us. The faces of our friends and family, sure, but also the faces of celebrities. I think these neurons are in a place called the Fusiform Face Area, but don’t count on me being right about it. Anyway, the professor got really depressed when he started talking about it, reminding us all that there are pieces of our brain dedicated specifically to the faces of Jennifer Aniston and Justin Timberlake, and isn’t that just horrible, that not even our brains are sacred, that they too are full like billboards and webpages with the faces of people we’re supposed to worship? I thought about this, too. And I got sad, too. But then I perked up a little, because I’m a kid whose psyche’s stuffed full of TV and the Internet, and I recalled with particular fondness the many famous people who were my playmates during my childhood. People like Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall and Kenan Thompson often attended the parties I threw, sitting with and among my stuffed animals and an imaginary friend I’d named Jerry. But foremost among them was Jim Carrey, teeth many and large, making the kind of faces I often made. He was an omnipresent father or older brother, a guy I often worked into my primitive child’s stories, calling him “Stretchyface” until my parents reminded me of his real name. But I never knew for sure who he was or what he did; I knew only that he showed up on my TV screen and sometimes in my own stories, and when he did, it was great and funny. And he wasn’t an apparition, either, because other kids could see him, and they talked about him too. He was a creature of Apollonian proportions. A living myth.
Jim Carrey was probably my first real exposure to old-school Hollywood stardom. He was my Charlie Chaplin, my Harpo Marx. He’s been a presence in my life for years, left an indelible mark on my sense of humor. He did what movie stars aren’t really allowed to do anymore: engage the viewer’s imagination. His fame, like the fame of a Henry Fonda or a James Stewart, is not self-congratulatory or ironic or won by a selection of views on YouTube. He just got famous because he has a lot of talent. It instills hope in the simple viewer’s heart when something like this happens, because it’s a reminder that the system still works. Hollywood started out as a bastion for talent, and it still can be! It’s not all sex, lies and horse heads in the bed! The manic Carrey, a Canadian who’s American as apple pie, is proof of all that.