Jim Carrey: A Salute To His Darker Roles

Jim Carrey proved his acting range in the late '90s and 2000s. We salute the likes of The Truman Show, The Cable Guy and Man On The Moon.

This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.

You know you’re a fan of something when that fandom is put to the test. Did you stick with Community when Dan Harmon wasn’t writing it? During the barren ’90s did you cling onto the hope that Doctor Who would return and be fantastic? Those moments when your patience and perseverance are tested are what make the privilege of being a fan important.

Though I have to admit, in recent years, admitting to being a Jim Carrey fan has been more difficult than it used to be. Long gone are the youthful days when hits such as Ace Ventura, The Mask and Dumb And Dumber made me laugh till my stomach hurt. But that wasn’t what truly ignited my love for Jim Carrey. What achieved that were the films where he wasn’t gurning, pratfalling or making his bum talk. Roles which we’ve not seen him do for a good long while.

Recently there have been a few cameos or supporting turns (Anchorman 2, Kick Ass 2), uninspiring family fare (Mr. Popper’s Penguins, A Christmas Carol), and equally disappointing and uninspired sequels (Dumb And Dumber To). Jim Carrey may have been known as an A lister, but that star status is on the wane. Many times in his career though, he has produced his most interesting work when you least expect it.

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The first time I saw this different side to Jim Carrey was in the 1996 Ben Stiller directed film The Cable Guy. It was firmly set in comedy genre mould, and we’d already seen Jim Carrey go full on bad guy as the Riddler in Batman Forever, but there was a new edge to the performance in The Cable Guy. That wildness behind the eyes wasn’t all about seeking laughs this time. There was a gleeful evil in Carrey’s Cable Guy, one that came from wanting to be noticed.

His character had been ignored his whole life, his childhood spent being brought up by television rather than his neglectful parents. It also works to mirror the psychology of any comedian, desperate for the audience to laugh, for their approval – they just want to be noticed. Carrey’s performance is still huge, almost overpowering the film, but this time equaling the laughs is an odd fear. Maybe this is why the film failed to find the audience it deserved. It’s tense and oddly scary, this tone would have been hard to market to fans awaiting the next Ace Ventura or The Mask. Its box office failure led to Carrey never being this wild eyed and evil again.

The closest he came was Count Olaf in the film version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events. He got to stretch himself with Peter Sellers impressions including “Stefano…an Italian man.” but the Count still had a cold stare of pure evil. Even though it’s aimed at children the book series has a macabre spine through it which Carrey relished.

The regular Carrey performance traits were mostly absent for The Truman Show, but this was a deliberate decision. Director Peter Weir compared the work with Carrey on The Truman Show to working with Robin Williams on Dead Poets Society in an interview with Filmscouts.com: “They wanted that control from a director. They are so diverse and so talented, they can run something by you, first this way, then that way, and before you know it, you’re picking from twenty different interpretations they’ve applied to the same material.”

He even mentions how sometimes Carrey would push to make it bigger but the choices made in the edit were to reign those in. This is never more apparent than a quote from a Total Film interview where Weir remembers that “In one scene, Jim did this silent comedy thing. But it was too much, it didn’t fit the tone of the picture.”

It was a choice which worked as Truman’s everyman is taken to breaking point, with Carrey making you care for him every step of the way in a performance Total Film had nothing but praise for in their 5 star review: “Carrey approaches his role with gentle, honest kindness, creating a real human being with real emotions… It’s a powerful, masterfully understated and moving performance, veering perfectly between moments of humour and heart tugging seriousness.”

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I’ve always had a soft spot for Frank Darabont’s The Majestic too, another role where Carrey channels everyman charm. Which, unfortunately, turned out to be another flop that occurred when Carrey tried something different. It was seen as a slice of Capra-esque schmaltz. But anyone who’s seen It’s A Wonderful Life can attest that Capra isn’t all schmaltz. George Bailey has to endure a life he never wanted, being held back until the only option he sees as being open to him is suicide.

The Majestic isn’t as, well, majestic, as Capra at his best, but it does feature Carrey portraying another role audiences weren’t used to. He plays blacklisted Hollywood writer Peter Appleton who loses his memory after a car crash and in a case of mistaken identity is believed to be a returning war hero. Carrey is understated again, portraying a man who is lost and has to conceal the lie as memories come flooding back to him. After The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile it was a seen as a misfire in Darabont’s career, but I think it’s well worth seeking out.

Carrey became adept at these detached personas, perfecting it in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but the most fully rounded role of Carrey’s career, one which managed to marry together to comedy antics with a powerful moving performance, occurs in Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon.

There are high octane, OTT comedic moments, but it’s almost like they’re not coming from Carrey. He inhabits the character of Kaufman so thoroughly you don’t see the star status up there. It’s such a tough character to get a grip on as well. Kaufman was a bundle of contradictions. A sweet natured guy who sang nursery rhymes and loved playing the bongos who lost himself in transcendental mediation, yet also a man who enjoyed getting a rise out of people, loved being the villain whether that was under the guise of Tony Clifton or if he was wrestling women. There are some great stories around the day he got kicked off the set of Taxi as Tony Clifton, in a bid to be free from the constraints of playing Latka on the show. All of these contradictions come across in Carrey’s performance.

This could be in part to the decision he took to go method for the film. In a conversation between the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and director Milos Forman found in the book of the screenplay, they discuss the bizarre atmosphere on set created by Jim losing himself in the multiple roles:

SA: During shooting, you even let Jim re-create Andy’s madness, bringing that experience onto the set.”

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MF: “Well, this film was more special than any other film I’ve made, because every day I was dealing with a different leading man. Andy was very pleasant, but you had to treat Andy, I mean Jim as Andy, with more caution. Like a snail, when you touch the horns, they pull in; so you have to be careful not to touch them. But as long as you didn’t, Andy was wonderful to work with.”

SA: “He created a level of chaos. It worked against the filmmaking schedule, but it was in the spirit of experiencing it like Andy would have.”

MF: “Yeah, and you would have to accommodate, not try for him to accommodate you. On the other hand, Tony Clifton was a nightmare to deal with You never knew if he was listening to you, so you never knew if he’d do what you asked him to do. You never knew if he’d antagonize the other actors. Now, Latka was the easiest. Latka was a puppy dog. Elvis was easy. He knew his things, and he would do it and didn’t give a damn what anybody wanted.”

This all led to what I believe is Carrey’s greatest performance which contains all of his comedic talents as well as previously untapped depth of emotion and range. At one point it’s the most childish exuberant performance, the next reveals layers of darkness previously unseen, and not seen since. Carrey has chosen material which would supposedly be darker, but without the authenticity that he brought to Kaufman it rang a little hollow in fare such as The Number 23.

It looks like in the future we’re going to see more of the dark side of Jim Carrey. In 2017 he has two films ready for release. Firstly, The Bad Batch alongside Keanu Reeves, which is described as a dystopian love story in which Carrey’s character is called The Hermit. Even more exciting is the other film, directed by Alexandros Avanas, whose name will already be sending shivers down the spine of anyone who saw Miss Violence. That was one of the most surprising, shocking and visceral film experiences in recent years, so I’m thrilled that Jim Carrey will be the lead in this film, True Crimes.

These two choices could show a change for ole Rubber Face Mr. Carrey. It’s still in line with projects he’s done in the past that have been explored here, and they could just be a blip before he returns to something we’re more familiar with, he could just be mixing the roles up again,or it could signify one or two other things. It could be that after the disappointment of his last few films he’s hoping to find some credibility in more gritty fare, or having bored of trying to please his core audience, which have been slowly drifting away, he’s decided to embrace the projects he’d always had a penchant for doing, this time not having to worry whether the audience follow him or not.

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Whichever it is, it gives me the hope that I can continue to be proud to be a Jim Carrey fan in the coming years, and it fills me with joy that I might not have to sit through another misfiring family movie where the real diverse talents of the man himself aren’t fully utilised.