Saturday 19 August 2017

Slapstick and soul: the two faces of jim

Has Jim Carrey finally found the perfect role? In recent years the Canadian-born actor has tended to oscillate between the kind of gurning slapstick that recalls the worst excesses of Jerry Lewis, and some surprisingly sombre and serious parts. And while it's the pratfalls and face-pulling that made him famous in the first place, his performances in films like The Majestic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have shown glimpses of a more soulful and serious man.

In his latest film, however, he gets to show off both sides. Based on an extraordinary true story, I Love You Phillip Morris (which was released here yesterday) stars Carrey as Steven Jay Russell, a remarkably resourceful conman and embezzler who risked all because of love.

Russell started out as an upstanding member of a small Virginia town, where he served as a deputy sheriff and was married to a woman who prayed to God daily and had given Russell two children.

But Steven was adopted, and when he tracks down his birth mother, she wants nothing to do with him. This trauma emboldens him to come out of the closet, and he moves to Miami to live as an openly gay man. But as Russell puts it in the film, "being gay is really expensive", and so he soon resorts to embezzlement at his corporate job.

When he's sent to jail, Russell meets and falls head over heels in love with one Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), and uses all his ingenuity to get himself transferred to Phillip's cell. And that's just the beginning of Russell's attempts to stay with Phillip, which will involve jailbreaks, feigned illnesses and the impersonating of lawyers and judges.

I Love You Phillip Morris is essentially a love story, and a very touching one at that, and it's depressing that the studio was forced into cutting it because American distributors were leery of its unapologetically gay themes. Carrey, meanwhile, has probably never been better, because aside from some very funny clowning around, he manages to stay still long enough to make his character a kind of tragic subversive hero.

It's a timely reminder that Jim Carrey can act, and a sign perhaps of the direction his career might take as he nears his 50th year and the face-pulling seems less and less appropriate. It has to be said he was and remains an extremely gifted physical comedian, so good that it's possible to imagine him having made hay in the silent era as a Buster Keaton or a Harold Lloyd.

However, he arrived a bit late for all this, being born in the small Ontario town of Newmarket, on January 17, 1962. The youngest of four children, Jim developed an early interest in comedy, and was performing stand-up at a Toronto club called Yuk Yuk's by the time he was 18.

In the early 1980s he decided that Canada was too small for him, and moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy and acting. He was working at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood when Rodney Dangerfield noticed him. The iconic Jewish stand-up saw something special in Carrey's awkward routines, and signed him to open for him on tour. This was great experience for Carrey, and small parts in films and TV shows followed.

Carrey appeared in walk-on roles in '80s films such as Peggy Sue Got Married and Clint Eastwood's The Dead Pool, but his first appearance of note was with Damon Wayans in the daft 1989 hit comedy Earth Girls Are Easy.

After this, Wayans and his brother Keenan invited Carrey to join them on a TV sketch show they had developed called In Living Colour.

The show ran for four years, and gave Carrey the chance to show off his comic talents. He appeared regularly playing a series of stock characters. He was the stand-out talent on the show, and it was only a matter of time before the film studios took notice.

In 1994 he landed his first starring role, in Tom Shadyac's goofball comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Critics hated the film, and weren't that keen on Carrey's performance either. But not for the first time the critics were talking through their hats, because the punters loved the film and it made a lot of money.

In fact, 1994 would be a huge year for Jim Carrey. His next film, The Mask, was a critical as well as a commercial success. Carrey starred as a shy office clerk who becomes a monstrously confident zoot-suited trickster after donning a magic mask. The film allowed him to show off his talent for impersonation, and established him as a rising star.

Then there was Dumb and Dumber, the relentlessly silly but extremely funny Farrelly brothers film in which Carrey and Jeff Daniels played a couple of idiots on the trail of a woman and a suitcase full of money.

By the end of 1994, Carrey was on his way, and though he had the misfortune to be associated with that stinkiest of Batman films, Batman Forever, in 1995, its failure didn't seem to do him any harm, and he had back-to-back hit comedies in 1996 and 1997 with The Cable Guy and Liar, Liar.

In The Truman Show, in 1998, Jim Carrey showed a tragic element to his perma-grinning screen persona in the clever Peter Weir drama about a man who has grown up in a reality TV show and doesn't know it. He played one of his heroes, pioneering '70s comedian Andy Kaufman, in Man on the Moon, in 1999.

Since the turn of the millennium, Carrey has appeared in animations like Horton Hears a Who! (2007) and Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol (2009), and in the kind of comedies we've come to expect of him -- Bruce Almighty (2003), and Yes Man (2008).

But he's also been proving he can handle serious drama, most memorably in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), in which he plays a man who has his memory erased and then regrets it.

A lot of people thought he'd get an Oscar nomination for that performance, but so far the members of the Academy have studiously ignored him.

I Love You Phillip Morris has been ignored, too -- in fact it was released too late to be in contention. But if Carrey keeps coming up with performances as good as these, a nomination is surely only a matter of time.



I Love You Phillip Morris was released nationwide yesterday. pwhitington@independent.ie

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