Carrey a Big Shtick

In Jim Carrey's first star vehicle, the hit Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the comedian was "on" every second. He worked himself into a demented frenzy on every line, and in the pauses between the lines. A number of bright people I know assured me that it was a riot, and I did laugh at it a few times, but overall I found Carrey's "persona" exhausting company.

I liked The Mask quite a bit better, in part because Carrey was playing a milquetoast who had his id unleashed. For half the picture, he was low-key; and because his over-the-top stuff wasn't continuous, it didn't wear out its welcome.

In Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Carrey returns as the intrepid Ace, a superannuated smart aleck who specializes in the retrieval of lost or kidnaped animals. His movements and voice are so exaggerated that a kabuki actor would seem like a Lee Strasberg student by comparison. Ace isn't a character, he's one big double-take on legs.

Herein, of course, lies the problem. What's under that huge, pointlessly intense grin, that weird, off-kilter stride? Carrey is funny for a while as Ace, not because the character is vivid, but because it's sort of cool to see someone throw himself into physical shtick with an abandon not seen since the days of the silents.

But before long, it begins to seem as if all the gibbering and capering around are parts of a defense mechanism, not of the character, but of the actor. It protects him from the possibility that one second might go by in which he isn't getting laughs, and from the vulnerability that can come with showing his own personality onscreen--one of the marks of most great screen comics.

When Robin Williams works in the same manic style, as he does all too rarely anymore, his soulfulness seeps out around the edges. When Carrey does it, he seems like a nervous guy hiding behind impenetrable shtick. This was fine when he played the Riddler in the most recent Batman film. It fit. But it's much more limiting to a comic hero. What Carrey demonstrates in the Ace Ventura pictures are the limitations of pure zaniness.

I'd be lying if I said that nothing in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls made me laugh. The opening sequence, a send-up of the Sylvester Stallone picture Cliffhanger, is a scream; and there's a later routine involving a mechanical rhino that is, one must admit, pretty original. There's something likable simply about the exuberant old-movie political incorrectness of sending a farce hero to back-lot Africa to horse around with wild animals and natives, à la Abbott and Costello in Africa Screams. Ace does everything but give the big chief a hotfoot.

Kids, who loved the first Ace and made it a hit, will probably like this one even better, because the writer-director, Steve Oedekerk, makes better use of the animals. The first movie didn't focus on the critters too much, oddly enough--you'd think they would be a chief source of its appeal. In When Nature Calls, the "sacred bat" Ace is trying to retrieve to prevent a tribal war is a puppet, but there are a number of splendid real animals, including Ace's marvelously trained sidekick monkey, Spike.

However overbearing a performer Carrey may be, there can be little doubt that he has prodigious physical-comedy skills. About midpoint in The Mask, he ripped into a terrific song-and-dance production called "Cuban Pete," which had nothing to do with the plot, made no sense, employed no fancy special effects, and was the best thing in the movie. Why doesn't somebody find a musical for this guy?

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls: Directed by Steve Oedekerk; with Jim Carrey, Ian McNeice, Simon Callow, Maynard Eziashi, SophieOkonedo, TommyDavidson, Adewale and BobGunton. Rated


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