The underappreciated film performances of Jim Carrey

Feature Rob Leane 17 Jun 2014 - 06:33

With a potential comeback on the cards for Jim Carrey, Rob looks through the hidden gems of his career.

Alrighty then. To get straight to the point – Jim Carrey’s career hasn’t been up to much lately has it? Certainly as leading man, at least. His last big-hitter was 2009’s A Christmas Carol, while his most recent leading role was 2011’s Mr Popper’s Penguins.

His latest performance outside of cameos was an interesting part in Kick Ass 2 though, a promising turn which left many audience-members wanting more from his character. With the trailer dropping recently for Dumb And Dumber To as well, the hints of a comeback for the iconic performer have continued to grow.

There’s been more positivity towards Dumb And Dumber To in comments than we might have expected (although this welcoming response was far from unanimous), which is undeniably a positive sign for the fledgling star.

If you just can’t wait for this potential rubber-faced renaissance though, you’re in luck. Carrey’s career is one littered with underappreciated movies, little-known gems and underperforming ‘failures’ with hard-earned cult status, all of which can still offer some brilliant entertainment years later.

Here’s our run-down of our favourite underappreciated performances, both serious and hilarious, from the king of slapstick, gurning and surprising audiences…

The Cable Guy

On the eve of this dark comedy’s release in 1996, Ben Stiller (in director mode) and producer Judd Apatow were surely hoping their project wouldn’t end up on any ‘underappreciated’ lists nearly 20 years later. They had handed Carrey a $20m pay-cheque for the project after all, making him the highest paid comedy star ever (at the time).

Carrey was also coming to the project off an amazing string of runaway hits which had seen him follow up Ace Ventura: Pet Detective with The Mask, Dumb And Dumber, Batman Forever and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. All of which, with the exception of the first Ace Ventura flick, had taken well over $100m at the American box office alone.

Despite recouping its budget in the USA, and crossing the $100m mark at the worldwide box office, The Cable Guy rarely gets remembered as anything other than a flop. Does it deserve such treatment? Not at all.

The Cable Guy marks a hugely brave decision in Carrey’s career, to take the pitch-black sadism which had been hinted under the surface of several of his popular roles and bring it right to the forefront. 1996 audiences may have found this hard to swallow, but the film is far more than a miss-step, it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy in its own right, which truly earned the cult following it eventually achieved.

Carrey’s performance here really is electric, attention-grabbing and incredibly bold. It’s hard to even picture him as the same actor who would be heart-warmingly reconnecting with his bowl-cut-sporting on-screen child in Liar Liar just a year later. Whenever Carrey is criticised for always playing the same character in his comedy roles, this is the film to retort with – his Chip Douglas (or Ernie, or Ricky Ricardo, depending who you ask…) is a truly intimidating, often genuinely unsettling, screen presence, with the well-shot scenes filming Carrey through the peep-hole of Broderick’s Steven’s apartment being truly creepy to watch.

Carrey doesn’t just intimidate and lisp his way through the film either, he also brings big laughs, with lengthy set pieces and scenarios really allowing the star to let rip in ways his more conventional roles never could.

Even though wider audiences might find the central character or premise slightly too weird, The Cable Guy is worth watching for these almost sketch-like sequences alone, including an amazing Star Trek parody which sees Chip yell the score to the episode Amok Time whilst terrifyingly battling Steven in a Medieval-themed restaurant. Plus there are the inappropriate family games night choices, the most unsettling performance of Somebody To Love of all time, a bathroom bust-up with Owen Wilson and a basketball match which sees Chip offend, annoy and physically endanger the majority of the key characters.

The joys of the film don’t stop with these uproarious situational scenes either, as the closing act refuses to let Chip go unscrutinised and really digs into how learning the facts of life from The Facts Of Life could affect a man. The film veers into drama and danger surprisingly well, offering a rare comedy closing act where first time viewers really don’t know how things are going to turn out.

If you haven’t seen The Cable Guy, it’s the perfect jumping-in point for more unconventional Carrey.

Man On The Moon

Four years later, another brilliant Carrey performance snuck under the mainstream radar. Despite not even reaching $35m at the American box office (making it even less successful than The Number 23, Carrey’s opinion-splitting foray into paranoid thriller territory), Man On The Moon is undeniably one of Carrey’s most engaging performances (possibly even his best), proven in part by the fact that it earned the actor his second (and most recent) Golden Globe.

What Man On The Moon has in common with Carrey’s other Golden Globe winning turn, The Truman Show, is that they both showcase the actor’s impressive serious side. Man On The Moon, a biopic of the late Andy Kaufman, sees Carrey inhabit the persona of the enigmatic odd-ball performer quite wonderfully, making this one of the most convincing cases of actors portraying real people in recent years.

The act of producing a serious biography of a wacky comedian is arguably the perfect role for Carrey, allowing him to show his oft-forgotten dramatic chops as well as offering a few big laughs along the way. Kaufman’s ill health, troubled mind and growing split-personality problems lets Carrey paint the comic as a tragic figure, with impressively emotional results – rarely has Carrey film tugged so hard on the heartstrings.

He doesn’t shy away from embracing Kaufman’s unique humour either, with a spot-on Elvis impersonation (by the awkward ‘foreign man’ character being played by Kaufman, being played by Carrey – layered performance much?) offering one of the biggest laughs.

There’s also time for some meta fourth-wall breaking moments and splashes of darker humour, including the adventures of Kaufman’s irritating alter ego Tony Clifton and Kaufman’s determination to become a public ‘villain’ by wrestling women and declaring himself the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion, making plenty of enemies in the process. Just that brief summary shows how much there is to enjoy here, with one of Carrey’s best non-generic and serious performances holding proceedings together incredibly well.

The fact that Carrey’s comedy style has clearly been influenced by Kaufman is another factor which makes this movie a treat, with a rendition of the Mighty Mouse theme tune (a famous Kaufman skit) harking back to Carrey’s ‘here she comes, to wreck the day’ musical gag from Liar Liar. If you didn’t know much about Kaufman before, Man On The Moon is a movie which could introduce you to a new favourite comedian as well as offering some humorous entertainment and big emotional moments.

The Majestic

Jump forward to 2001 and you’ll find another little-known Carrey performance – The Majestic. Despite reaching a decent total of 2000 American theatres, The Majestic failed to make the rundown of the top 100 opening weekends of year, marking, at the time, Carrey’s least successful starring turn since before Ace Ventura made him a star.

Brought to the screen by director Frank Darabont, of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile fame, this one is well worth a watch too. Despite receiving a near-unanimous critical backlash, the film looks a lot better with a bit of hindsight. 2001 was a few years before Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind after all, arguably the point where mass audiences finally accepted that Carrey can pull-off playing completely straight (even The Truman Show had some comedy moments, arguably).

The Majestic sees Carrey on an emotional journey as up-and-coming screenwriter Peter Appleton who, in the aftermath of World War II, is accused of being a communist for his membership to a Marxism-supporting college society, which he had only attended in an attempt to impress a girl many years prior. After drink-driving his way off a bridge and into a heavy thump on the head, Peter wakes up memory-less on the shore of the small town of Lawson. The local residents are convinced this amnesiac is Luke Trimble, a long-lost war veteran and darling of the town.

The plot may seem a little contrived, namely the ‘washing up in the one town with a Carrey-doppelganger missing person’ bit, but it can be forgiven for that seeing as it enables one of the most nuanced, understated and restrained performances of Carrey’s career. Resisting the temptation to go wacky, even when faced with drunken conversations with stuffed animals, courtroom drama and jive piano segments, Carrey achieves more emotion with the sorrow, confusion and occasional joy in his eyes than he ever has with his gangly flexibility and rubber-faced nature.

Embracing this opportunity to actually act with both hands, Carrey proves that he is more than capable of weighty topics. He discovers love, with both Luke’s former sweetheart and the local cinema (look out for Bruce Campbell as a B-movie star), reconnects with a father who isn’t actually his father, gains acceptance and friendship from all directions and genuinely finds happiness, only to have it stripped from him by the communist-hunting government.

This fall from grace allows Carrey to step up once more, with social justice and a chance to do the right thing after years of only looking out for himself clearly weighing hard on his character’s conscience. With a final act akin to Mr Smith Goes To Washington, there’s plenty of drama amongst the emotional development too. A must-see for fans of serious Carrey.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events

The plight of this actually-good family-friendly franchise that never was is a sore spot with sizeable clusters of film fans around the world. It had heaps of heart, little hints of darkness, an entertainingly unreliable narrator, a beautiful visual world and loads of top-notch performances, including an astounding performance from Jim Carrey.

Even though Carrey’s Grinch made big money, and his Riddler in Batman Forever was a saving grace for some movie-goers, this villainous turn is the undoubtedly one of the best of his career. For those who haven’t seen this fantastic family flick, Carrey plays Count Olaf – a duplicitous, mono-browed, crow-nosed master of disguise out to get his hands on the newly-orphaned Baudelaire children’s hefty inheritance.

Bringing new meaning to the term multifaceted performance, Carrey absolutely shines with this opportunity to not only play the conniving Count, but also his cunning incognito creations including snake-milker and all-round oddball Mr Stephano and the aunty-seducing, one-legged Captain Sham. It really is a role made for the modern master of physical and facial comedy, which he clearly relishes and embraces.

From the smallest moments, like Olaf whipping out his radio halfway through a play to communicate with his goons, to his reactions to big set-pieces (including a highly hammy evil laugh when a speeding train approaches the orphans), Carrey is clearly having so much fun here, and it really is a delight to watch. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen an evil pirate woo Meryl Streep in record time, either.

Leaving the orphans to tackle the weightier things like character development and emotional trauma, Carrey’s free-roam as Olaf, including everything from a brief T-Rex impression to a hilarious wooden-leg reveal, is arguably the most entertaining villainous turn in any family movie in recent memory.

Carrey’s interaction with the adult cast, which includes the always-enjoyable Timothy Spall, offers some humour too, as the duplicitous Count consistently deceives and dumfounds them into trusting him. Nearly drowning Klaus just to save him when the adults arrive is just one example of the inherent entertainment in-built to this character, which Carrey brings to life spectacularly.

It may be unfortunate that we will never get to see the rest of this 13 book saga on the screen, but at least we have this excellent film, and its superbly evil performance from Carrey.

I Love You, Phillip Morris

Five years later and Carrey was again putting in a fantastic performance in a film that would go unseen by most. In I Love You, Phillip Morris, another biographical film, Carrey plays Steven Jay Russell, a real-life con-artist and prison-escaper extraordinaire who falls in love with his fellow inmate Phillip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor.

The stats suggest that this is one of the least-seen Carrey performances since he first came to prominence back in the 1990s, only making slightly over $20m at the worldwide box office haul. That’s less than Man On The Moon, The Majestic, or any other Carrey film since before Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It’s actually only slightly more than Carrey himself used to get paid per film at the height of his money-making powers. Various distributors circled I Love You, Phillip Morris, and for a while it looked like the film might never see the light of day at all, until Roadside Attractions eventually agreed to push the picture out to around a hundred US theatres.

It’s not hard to see why a film which gets a laugh out of the line ‘it’s not easy faking your death from AIDS’ struggled to find a distributor, but it is a shame that more people haven’t seen the film. It has touches of crowd-pleasing pitch-black humour, two stunning central performances and some truly effective emotional moments.

Finding another new way to surprise audiences, Carrey impresses as a friendly cop who takes a complete U-turn in life, leaving his wife and daughter to start again as a homosexual con-man after reprioritising his life post-car-crash. Once more, Carrey blends the funny with the serious, with lost love, abandonment issues and serious diseases vying for screen-time against broad comedy moments including Carrey launching himself down an escalator in order to launch insurance claim.

Like many of the other films on this list, I Love You, Phillip Morris is worthy of a watch just to see Carrey push his performance skills in ways which his most successful films often don’t. This time around Carrey miraculously turns a high-security convict into a hugely likeable character, turning Steven into a protagonist you can’t help but cheer for, however many laws (and hearts) that he breaks.

Additionally, Carrey’s easy chemistry with McGregor alone is arguably enough to warrant the price of picking up I Love You, Phillip Morris on DVD. The two make an unlikely but emotionally effective screen romance, with McGregor’s fragile, nervous Phillip providing the perfect foil to Carrey’s confident, raucous Steven. The feelings between the pair make the emotional stakes high here, while the trust issues of their on-and-off pairing creates some heated arguments, bringing some engaging drama to what could easily have become a camp, parody-esque comedy.

In short: you don’t have to wait until Dumb and Dumber To for your Jim Carrey fix, there’s plenty of amazing performances in the star’s filmography which you may well have missed. Enjoy. And perhaps spare a couple of hours for Eternal Sunshine if you've never had the pleasure too. It's hardly underappreciated, but it is quite brilliant.

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