Don’t We All Miss Jim Carrey?

Pop Culture

Don’t We All Miss Jim Carrey?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Chances are, that it might have taken you a second to register that it was Jim Carrey doing a classic bit at the Golden Globes, where he appeared displeased about being asked to move from the cool movie section to the pedestrian TV section. I don’t blame you. There’s been little to Carrey in the past few years besides his social media rants about vaccines causing autism, and interviews where he sounds like a raving middle-aged hippie.  

Even when his latest series, Kidding, premiered last year, there was relatively little fanfare greeting his return to screen. Although the upside was that he garnered acclaim for his surreal performance as Mr Pickles/Jeff Piccirillo, a children’s TV host whose personal life is a lot more grim than his day job of teaching kids to be kind and responsible. Kidding even notched up nominations at the Golden Globes this year. Hopefully, it’s the silver lining of a rough period that included the tragic suicide of Carey’s ex-girlfriend and prompted the actor to keep a low profile.

But then, Carrey has never been one to schmooze and put himself right in front of the public eye. As he told a baffled New York Fashion Week reporter in 2017, he doesn’t believe in icons, or projecting celebrity personalities to the world. Perhaps that’s why he’s best known for losing himself in high-octane slapstick films that gleefully tease the line between comedy and madness. In 1994’s The Mask, it’s hard to tell where Carrey’s hyper-expressive face ends and the cartoonish, bright green Mask begins – and it’s downright impossible to imagine another actor essaying the role, except perhaps Mike Myers.

But even Myers, with his gift for creating larger-than-life caricatures, could never come close to Carrey’s mania in Batman Forever, a film that is best remembered for his portrayal of The Riddler. As the Batman villain, Carrey was the true predecessor of the Joker: a chaotic entity who lives and dies by his own twisted, inarguable logic, and whose charisma ensures that you can’t tear your eyes away from the screen, even for a second. Is there any other actor who can bring the same intensity to The Grinch as he does to Everyman Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

Carrey, then, is a rare actor who is impossible to label precisely because of the mammoth range of his oeuvre. We’ve seen him play roles with exquisite nuance, like when he slowly discovers he’s living in a fictional world in The Truman Show, or when he wears Andy Kaufman like a second skin in Man on the Moon. Even his chip-toothed, mushroom-headed Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber escapes being an one-note idiot, thanks to the empathy and intelligence that Carrey brings to his bumbling character.

In fact, it’s a testament to Carrey’s comedic genius that he is hardly recognised as one of the finest method actors of his generation. His 2017 documentary, Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, takes a behind-the-scenes look at his role in Man on the Moon, including how he seamlessly stayed in character as Kaufman, who also played various characters, between takes. Essentially, Carrey took on a role within a role within a role – and if anything, this defines his disparate body of work and his insistence on shredding our idea of reality to pieces.

If you think about it, Carrey, the actor, has been a perpetual Riddler always posing an existential question with his films: What if you were God for a day? What if the life you knew was an elaborate reality show? What if you could erase the bittersweet memories of lost love? What if you could only say yes, or never tell a lie?

Irrespective of the demands of any role he takes up, Carrey has rarely strayed from his roots as the platonic comedian whose job is to ask the questions we’d rather not answer. And as he turns 57, he’s leaning more deeply than ever into the uncomfortable shadows between truth and perception with Kidding, where his Mr Rogers-inspired character can’t come to terms with the death of his son. He forces us to think of the most positive person in the world, then plunges him into unfathomable despair, with an aching brand of humour no less.

In fact, it’s a testament to Carrey’s comedic genius that he is hardly recognised as one of the finest method actors of his generation.

Carrey has also turned artist, debuting an exhibition of political cartoons titled “IndigNATION” last year in Los Angeles. It is classic Carrey all over: visceral, in-your-face, punctuated by a needle-sharp irreverence, and swirls of colour. Still, maybe Mr Pickles closest we’ll get to grasping Carrey’s quicksilver mind.

Like Carrey himself, Mr Pickles’ cheerful persona is belied by his real-life struggles with depression, and his burning desire not just to entertain, but to make you think. You may not have heard from Carrey in a couple of years. Rest assured, he’s still around, ready to meet any preconceived notion of reality with a pithy “what-if?”