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Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty: Love Me!

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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.

About Alan Dale

  • Roxanne

    I just recently saw Bruse almighty. What a wonderful performance Carrey gave us yet again. With every movie he just gets amazingly better. He is full of surprises. He can be stupendously funny and yet insanely sensitive. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Alan – thanks for the review. I will see this movie, but I’ve noticed that most comedies seem to suffer from the same problem you describe here – they’ve got to have a character arc. So Carrey is funny, but then he learns his lession. Funniness over.

    But what would happen if he didn’t learn his lession? WOuldn’t it be ultimately dissatisfying, even if the funny didn’t stop?

  • http://www.kitchencabinet.blogspot.com Alan Dale

    I think the point is that there’s a disjunction b/w the self-absorbed jerk Carrey plays at the beginning of Bruce Almighty and the beatified guy he plays at the end. Carrey isn’t the kind of low-keyed actor who can make the transition subtly (Adam Sandler is way ahead of him there), which is a big reason the soft comic realism of the ending is cloying. Jim Carrey going about selflessly spreading the good word is not Jim Carrey doing what he has any talent for. And the lesson he’s learning is tripe: value your faithful girlfriend; give blood; make people laugh. If this is all you’d get from face-to-face meetings with God then it hardly matters whether He exists. He’s dead even if He’s alive. And think about it: the movie actually includes God as a character and while talking to him the hero doesn’t even get past his job woes, and we’re still supposed to identify with him. Wouldn’t you want to ask Him what He was thinking about when He set the Holocaust in motion, or Stalinism, or when He created the bubonic plague or cancer or birth deformities, or SOMEthing?

    They would have done better either to make Bruce a nice boy like Harold Lloyd who we felt would deserve better if only he would grow up, which in form would be a romantic-comic melodrama with the anchorman as the villain–and a total waste of Carrey’s hardball talent, or to make it a total work of irony in which Bruce never understood the lesson, and let Carrey go to the end of the line with the character. If it were a work of sustained irony the audience could identify with Bruce BECAUSE he’s unworthy of God’s direct intercession. We all are on the average day when we aren’t aware of anyone noticing what we do. We’re filled with anger and self-pity b/c everything doesn’t go our way and for that very reason we withhold from other people–what we have was too hard to come by! The audience would get the lesson even if Bruce didn’t and then the moviemakers wouldn’t have to spell it out, which they don’t have the imagination or guts to do in a compelling way, anyway. As I recall this is how the Woody Harrelson strand of White Men Can’t Jump finishes off, with Rosie Perez walking away from him in disbelief b/c he just CAN’T grow up. It’s emotional but in a tart realistic way you can respond to and still respect yourself. Responding to Bruce Almighty would be like eating an entire pound of cheap candy you didn’t even want at one sitting.

    Thanks for reading.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    True that, I see your point now. I’ll catch the film anyway, but I’ll prepare myself for the let-down “Hollywood” ending. Thanks for the warning. :)

  • Dan

    I thought Bruce Almighty was a wonderful movie. Morgan Freman Played a wonderful God also.the movie made you think, however it also made me Laugh.I am troubled about a few coments I read from other people who posted coments.I am a firm Believer in God and am a christian,God didnt Create the plauge or any other Horible sickness.those things come from satin himself.I dont Believe for a second that God would want us to be sick, homeless or unhappy. he gave us free will.he wants us to serve Him Because we love Him. it is not a forced issue

  • http://dirtgrain.com/weblog Jan Eggers
  • http://www.blogbloke.com BB

    Isn’t it amazing that the greatest comedians of today come from Canada – especially Toronto. Jim Carey, John Candy, Mike Myers (aka Steve Austin), Eugene Levy, Thomas Chong, Howie Mandel, Rick Moranis, Martin Short, Dave Thomas, etc., etc. And this doesn’t even take into account the disproportionate number of Canadian actors and singers that own Hollywood. And for that matter Hollywood was created by some Jewish guys from Nova Scotia, and most of the films today are made in Toronto or Vancouver. Oh Canada…

  • http://www.makeyougohmm.com/ TDavid

    John Ritter was another good physical comedian. Check out the first season of Three’s Company.

  • http://thebloke@blogbloke.com BB

    Erratum: Mike Myers (aka Austin Powers). Oh.. did I mention the vast number of Canadian Pro Wrestlers?

  • gabbybi926

    jim r u there?if u r than my name is gabby.i think i’m your #1 fan please,please,please,please call me at [edited] util then tell celibrities about me.and 1 more thing please hire me at 1 of your movies your my inspiration like jerry lewis is 2
    u.please try and call me.