Jim Carrey is, inarguably to my mind, one of the greatest physical comedians in American movie history. He learned a lot from Jerry Lewis but has far greater precision, combining the talent for pantomime (though not acrobatics) of the legendary silent clowns with the vocal control of Mel Blanc, the voice of the Warner Brothers cartoon characters. Aided by special effects Carrey can also do everything those rambunctious cartoon characters could, giving him a wider-ranging package of talents than any other low comedy specialist in our movies has ever had. I say “low” comedy not as a put-down but to distinguish it from high comedy, which requires wit (a composite of chronometric timing and a knowing appreciation of the connotations of words)and a sophisticated manner, attainments that aren’t in Carrey’s portfolio. (This is Kevin Spacey’s domain right now, if anyone’s.) Neither is he a credible romantic comedy hero (unlike Nicolas Cage and Ewan McGregor, with their dream-date attentiveness to their female co-stars); Carrey is too much of a one-man show, a universe of base urges and high gifts unto himself.
Some people pull back from him because he’s too much, too intent on entertaining us within an inch of our lives. But I think the aggression in his performing style is what makes him heroic for his audience. He may come across as a nice guy in real life, and he has often played one, but what gets the audience going is his lack of restraint. When he’s operating at full power we don’t especially want him to be the nice guy because that doesn’t hook into our fantasies. Jim Carrey, the physical man, can do things we can’t do, and it’s a waste for him to play a character who doesn’t do more with his powers than we could get away with without them. He’s a superhero of the id rather than the superego, and we get off on seeing him defy moral gravity.
I wish he had better acumen when selecting projects. Jerry Lewis revitalized slapstick in the sound era and provided such a compelling model that comedians as varied as Eddie Murphy, Nicolas Cage, and Carrey are still working from it. But in a twenty-year career as a top star Lewis made exactly one movie you could recommend to people who aren’t already fans–The Nutty Professor (1963). It’s a peril to them as artists that the audience will take anything within their specialty from a star like Lewis or Carrey at the peak of their popularity; the huge box-office success of Bruce Almighty, Carrey’s latest, is proof.
Comedians are the last movie stars who still regularly come up through live theater. This probably accounts for the much-commented-on aspects of their relationship to the audience: they’re desperate for our love; they’re equally desperate for our respect; and they hate our guts. Working in live comedy must be brutal, having to be funny to an empty house; playing over the random noises of an inattentive audience; keeping your routine going when the audience isn’t laughing; dealing with hecklers. And yet the hostility that comics feel for the audience, the great stone from which they’ve had to wring water, doesn’t distort their artistry as their need for love or respect tends to. Physical comedians work intuitively from universal feelings; they don’t need much education or cultivation. As a result, they can go grossly wrong when they try to play directly for emotion or do “serious” pieces. They’re working much closer to their instincts, and their professional experience, when they draw on their resentment and aggression.
Carrey was plainly looking for acting awards in The Truman Show (1998) and Man on the Moon (1999). The first gets by, to the extent it does, on its high concept, certainly not on Carrey’s “soulful” yearning, while the second, ironically, recounts the mad put-on artist Andy Kaufman’s life in a square A&E Biography mode, implausibly presenting him as an inspired innocent who merely channels his perverse charades. Both roles are soft-boiled eggs inside their shells. Bruce Almighty, by contrast, stems from Carrey’s need to be loved and is at least preferable to the other two in showing you what makes him a star.