Jim Carrey is a performer who can capture vastly different audiences through his performances, be them on more dramatic or comedic fronts. His work as an actor has always shown a wonderful level of range.
Since his early roles leading to working on In Living Color, Jim Carrey has been a great comedic voice, and his performances throughout his career have captured different areas of the human condition. Character comes through in roles that might seem similar at first glance but are all unique in both their personalities and how he portrays them.
Recently, I have revisited many different parts of Jim Carrey’s career, and I am drawn to the way he embodies all of his characters so completely that even similar jokes always feel unique for each film and character.
Watching the films of his that I have nostalgic connections to again has brought new insight into these familiar performances. After watching both seasons of Kidding multiple times, I was pulled to revisit the work I was familiar with, while also experiencing his work to which I did not have the same nostalgia. Watching his performance as Jeff Pickles over and over brought me more appreciation for his range and ability to embody his characters so completely.
He has given memorable performances across genres, always showcasing 100 percent, and bringing sympathy and understanding to even the most ridiculous of his characters.
Beginnings – Films Before In Living Color
Before the start of In Living Color in 1990, Carrey appeared in the films Once Bitten, Earth Girls are Easy, The Dead Pool, and Peggy Sue Got Married. Some of these roles were smaller, but we were introduced to his talents and range. No matter how small a part, he manages to give life to each and every character, making them feel real and lived-in.
In The Dead Pool, he portrays Johnny Squares, a rock star who dies from an apparent heroin overdose while filming a slasher film. This performance gives a glimpse into Carrey‘s range by portraying a character with dark undercurrents in a way that feels realistic and captures the frantic energy of a drug addict.
Earth Girls are Easy, which also starred Damon Wayans, is a film adaptation of Julie Brown‘s 1984 album Goddess in Progress. This film gives us more of the comedy and physicality that we associate with Jim Carrey. He plays one of three aliens who crash lands in the swimming pool of Valerie (Geena Davis) and must learn how to behave like humans during their time partying and getting massive haircuts on Earth.
Carrey plays the least talkative of the three aliens. His performance brings to mind the focus on physical comedy and capturing the alien nature of the character. He doesn’t speak English as well as the others, he eats things that shouldn’t be eaten, and acts without the filter of human social interactions. This all works wonderfully to give us a fun performance that shows how Carrey got noticed and became the performer we know today.
In Once Bitten (1985) – one of Carrey‘s first leading roles – he plays Mark Kendall, a high school virgin who wants to have sex, but gets bitten by a vampire instead. The performance showcases talent in homage and impression. Carrey‘s performance as Mark after he is bitten takes on elements of classic depictions of vampires balanced with the awkwardness of being a high school student.
These performances lead him to become a series regular on In Living Color, the sketch show created by Keenen Ivory Wayans. The series had a majority black cast and explored subject matter for a black audience, different from the mainstream approach to black humor commonly found during the time period. Carrey frequently played parodies of white people overstepping into black culture, such as Vanilla Ice.
1994: Three Films, Three Successes
Jim Carrey‘s career really exploded in 1994, when he had three films all come out the same year. These were The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and Dumb and Dumber.
This combination of films represents perfectly what audiences picture when they think of Carrey‘s work in comedy. What strikes me the most from this selection of films is just how different his characters are in each one. He deals with similar comedic beats, yet everything comes across and feels wonderfully unique in each role.
The Mask brought us the zany side of Carrey that we have come to love. The film balances two aspects of personality by showing a more meek and awkward character in Stanley along with the confidence and cartoon physics once he puts on the mask, which belongs to Loki, making this film the Loki solo movie.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective brings Carrey‘s physical comedy to the forefront. Throughout the film, he showcases his many talents in physically demanding comedy, which makes this film a good representation of what he is most known for throughout his career.
In Dumb and Dumber, Carrey plays Lloyd Christmas, a recently fired limo driver, and one half of a team with names connected to Harold Lloyd, a staple of silent, physically demanding comedy.
In the scene where Lloyd expresses that he’s “sick and tired of being a nobody”, the audience is given reason to sympathize with his character. Carrey‘s performance here is subtle with just the right amount of emotion. This mixture of sadness and newfound sympathy allows us to laugh about Lloyd selling a dead bird to a blind kid.
Carrey‘s performance in Dumb and Dumber is a wonderful mixture of emotion, physical comedy, and perfect delivery of unforgettable lines such as “I just thought she was a raging alcoholic.”
Continuing Comedic Career
After his success in establishing a character around comedy, especially roles that utilize his talents in physical comedy, Carrey went on to go further in the genre, taking on roles in a series of films that all show his strengths. He also started showing more of his talent in dramatic performances around the time, working hard to develop his career across genres.
In Liar, Liar (1997), Carrey plays Fletcher Reede, an overworked father, always putting his work above his family. The film has fun with the implications of its premise revolving around Fletcher’s son Max wishing that his father could not tell a lie for one day.
The film blends the comedy of someone constantly needing to tell the truth with the drama that comes from relationships falling apart.
Carrey does a wonderful job of playing Fletcher as a very self-aware character, who earns our sympathy by wanting to change. We are able to laugh at him getting what’s been coming to him, while still yearning for that much-needed change to take hold.
The film allows for emotional character growth, while also providing comedic moments that stand along with the work that made him a household name.
The Cable Guy (1996) – directed by Ben Stiller – brought out a darker side of Carrey‘s quintessential comedy. His performance in this film flows freely from awkward friend to crazed stalker, while still maintaining the comedy.
The way Chip (Jim Carrey) acts in his friendship with Steven (Matthew Broderick) changes as the film progresses, allowing the film to get darker and darker, yet not drifting too far from the awkward comedy present throughout.
The tone of this film is a welcome change and shows just how much range Carrey has in his performances. The Cable Guy gives way to a new style of comedy for Carrey incorporating little pieces of the familiar with moments showcasing just how well he can portray a character built around the unease of allowing strangers into our houses and our lives.
In Me, Myself & Irene, Carrey plays Charlie, a man who’s wife Layla (Traylor Howard) cheats on him with the limo chauffeur from their wedding (Tony Cox). She gives birth to triplets – Jamal, Lee Harvey, and Shonté Jr – that aren’t Charlie’s. When Layla leaves and abandons her children, Charlie continues to raise them. He’s a great dad, even though the entire town laughs at him and makes fun of him. From dealing with this abuse for years, Charlie copes by developing a split personality Hank. He stands up to the people Charlie lets walk over him. Throughout the film, Charlie learns how to take the good qualities of Hank and bring them into his life, while keeping the sexism and aggression at bay.
Carrey‘s performance throughout this film balances both elements of his character in a physical comedy ballet. In the finale, he fights with himself, working to save Irene Waters (Renée Zellweger). This scene is full of striking physical beats that truly showcase the talent Carrey has in the physical realm of comedy, while the juxtaposition of his characters shows how well he can create subtle differences in inflection and physicality to portray polar opposites.
The opposite personality traits Charlie possesses give Carrey the time to shine as he provides a performance that flits from wholesome and supportive dad to a guy who beats up coke machines, flirts with everyone, and lies to get someone to have sex with him. Me, Myself & Irene shows Carrey at his most wholesome and innocent, while also showing him at his most aggressive and confident. This combination brings us a memorable performance, where he captures each character perfectly and makes them feel distinct while also being part of the same brain.
Establishing Dramatic Career
As Jim Carrey became more and more known in his comedy, he also began to establish a career where his dramatic talent takes the focus. In 1998, he starred in The Truman Show. He played Truman Burbank, a man who’s entire life is broadcast as a television series after he was adopted by the OmniCam Corporation as a baby.
The Truman Show deals with science fiction themes of paranoia and the overarching power of media. None of the ‘real’ life Truman experiences is actually real. It’s covered in the sheen of a 1950s Sears catalog. Carrey captures the innocent quality of a man born into a fantasy depiction of the ‘wholesome’ past. The audience feels sympathy for him, wanting to finally see him escape this fake life and be a real person instead of a corporate puppet.
Carrey‘s performance in the film works well in the moments of comedy, while also maintaining the darkness constantly underneath such a perfect world. Similarly to the opening of Blue Velvet, The Truman Show gives us a view into the twisted truths hidden beneath suburbia. The dramatic beats of the film, and the power of Carrey‘s performance, hit that much harder after we’ve seen the veneer of his fabricated life and personality.
This film helped Carrey establish himself as a dramatic actor, and gave him more opportunities to explore that side of his career. He won a Golden Globe for his performance.
In 1999, he expertly portrayed Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. This film is a biopic of Kaufman‘s life, celebrating his life and career, with a focus on the elaborate pranks and inside jokes he performed throughout his life. These included his performances as lounge singer Tony Clifton, his decision to become a professional wrestler who only wrestles women, and his memorable anti-comedy routines.
Carrey embodies Kaufman so completely, easing between on-stage performances and moments reflecting Kaufman‘s personal – yet still in-character – life. Carrey captures Kaufman so well and gives an emotional performance capturing both the humor and darkness of Kaufman‘s life.
This film allows audiences to see just how much Carrey can offer as an actor. The film is about comedy, yet is one of Carrey‘s most demanding and dramatic pieces of work. The film celebrates Kaufman‘s life but doesn’t shy away from portraying every aspect of his life including his love for prostitutes, dislike of portraying Latka on Taxi, and ultimately, his death – which the people closest to him initially thought might be an elaborate prank.
This is a wonderful film with a performance that truly captures the essence of Kaufman in every frame. Carrey earned his second Golden Globe for his performance of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon.
In The Majestic (2001), Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a screenwriter in 1950s Hollywood accused of being a communist. The film follows Peter, after he’s lost the credit on his new film, actress girlfriend, and contract with the studio. After losing so much, he gets drunk and ends up driving off a bridge. He wakes up on a beach with amnesia in a town where everyone thinks he’s Luke Trimble, a young soldier missing in action during World War II.
Carrey plays Peter with classic Hollywood charm. The film is commonly noted for its similarities to Frank Capra films and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in particular, and the uplifting speeches of Jimmy Stewart.
As I watched The Majestic, Carrey‘s performance brought me to Joel McCrea. I have always appreciated the subtle humor and overflowing charm of McCrea‘s work, especially in Sullivan’s Travels, where he plays a Hollywood director who ends up with amnesia on a chain gain. There are similarities between these films, but even if those weren’t as straightforward, Carrey‘s performance embodies McCrea‘s charm, capturing the time period in a beautiful way.
Carrey portrays Peter before, during, and after his amnesia with just the right amounts of innocence and faith in humanity. The film explores the 1950s film industry, and how quick people were to give over names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Peter grows and changes from his small-town experiences, and relearns the reason he loves film through rebuilding The Majestic, a dilapidated theater.
Carrey‘s performance highlights the emotion of Peter, and the innocence that comes from not knowing who you are, and going along with what makes the people around you happy.
Continuing Dramatic Career
After becoming more known for more dramatic work, and getting some award recognition for that work, Carrey had more offers for roles in this avenue.
In 2004, Jim Carrey plays Joel Barrish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is directed by Michel Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman. The story focuses on the intricate and challenging relationship between Joel and Clementine (Kate Winslet).
This is a beautifully shot film filled with well-developed characters who grow and change throughout the film, coming to conclusions that seem optimistic for some and the start of a never-ending cycle for others. There’s beauty in the chaos of Joel and Clem’s relationship. Both Winslet and Carrey give wonderful performances here and feel like real people with issues that can’t be solved just by being in love.
The performance surprised some audiences who felt Carrey was cast against type, but the more and more time spent examining his career, this role feels like a natural progression. It showcases similar talents Carrey has previously displayed and mixes in touches of surrealist humor that works wonderfully with his personality and willingness to fully embody his characters.
There’s a physical difference in Joel during moments where Clem – or her memories – are no longer with him. She was involved in so much of his life, that his hobbies and interests seemed to fade away with her. In the opening scene – which takes place further along the timeline – Joel seems to not have nearly as much personality as before.
Carrey plays this difference wonderfully. The lack of joy might come across as his personality when you first see this scene – he’s someone who hates sand, and complains about it – but once you see the happy Joel who makes art and watches elephant parades, the difference at this moment is poignant, and performed perfectly.
The performance always feels hooked in to where Joel is in his life. In a continuous shot, the film transitions rooms and timelines, along with a costume change for Joel, and Carrey never misses a beat, perfectly portrayed the Joel most connected to that time and place.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film asking questions about life, love, and perfection. Joel and Clem’s relationship wasn’t perfect, but putting all the good and bad on display might help. Or it might lead them down the same path again. You can decide, and either way, the performances work wonderfully to support those readings.
I Love You Philip Morris (2009) is based on the true story of Steven Jay Russell. The film follows Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), a cop turned con artist, after he leaves his family to start life over accepting that he’s gay. He goes to prison, where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) and falls in such a deep love that he escapes prison over and over, trying to reunite with Phillip.
The film explores the darkly comedic aspects of Russell’s story, as well as the more dramatic and sad moments as well. The characterization works well to give the central romance between Steven Russell and Phillip Morris just enough focus, so we feel sympathy when they are torn apart, but doesn’t go so far, making the nature of his crimes go unnoticed.
The performances help the audience retain sympathy for the sad moments, and feel just how much Russell loves Phillip. The dark comedy of the film helps the story never come across too accepting of what Russell did to get in prison though. Carrey plays the part well, balancing the lying, scamming, and a general focus on living a life he can’t afford with the adoration and determination to reunite with his boyfriend.
In recent years, Carrey has balanced the different aspects of his career, creating memorable characters in different genres, as well as mediums.
In the film, he portrayed Dr. Robotnik in Sonic the Hedgehog, giving the film some of its most memorable moments, both during the film (dancing to Where Evil Grows) and after the credits (Rock-connaissance!).
Carrey‘s Robotnik is a joy to watch, and an endless supply of cartoon-fueled fun. He plays the character in the right stylized-villain mindset for the role and helps the family film be one that’s fun for everyone.
On television, he gave an Emmy-worthy – but not nominated – performance as Jeff Pickles on Showtime’s Kidding.
Kidding follows Jeff Piccirillo (Jim Carrey) – also known as Mr. Pickles, host of Puppet Time – after the death of his son Phil (Cole Allen, who also plays twin brother Will) and the dissolution of his marriage to Jill (Judy Greer).
The series takes its emotion seriously while managing to come through with the humor without feeling disconnected from the thematic moments. Kidding deals with death, divorce, and unhealthy paternal relationships told with bright, colorful musical numbers.
In season two episode two, Jeff listens to Hopscotch(Dick Van Dyke) – the friendly neighborhood Sasquatch – sing a song that makes Jeff feel that maybe his relationship with Seb (Frank Langella) – his father – isn’t all bad, but as the scene progresses, Jeff realizes the cycle that he could never escape, leading to his current problems. Jim Carrey gives an absolutely haunting performance here, and as Jeff comes to his realizations, we feel his pain and hope he can finally be free to “feel anything at all”, instead of only the emotions deemed ‘normal’ by his father.
Throughout Kidding, every character gets developed and important stories dealing with their own issues and insecurities while maintaining a visually friendly aesthetic and heartfelt tone.
Jim Carrey puts so much into his performance of Jeff. The emotion never feels false or exaggerated for the moment, yet the musical interludes always feel genuine and beautiful. When emotions get too strong for only words, the show expertly turns to music. Carrey sings about everything he’s kept bubbling inside – under guise from his father – and finally, he sings something buried so deep down, he regrets ever thinking it but knows he can’t stop believing it to be true.
Throughout the years, Jim Carrey has given many memorable performances, showcasing his range of talents. He should be praised for his comedic and dramatic achievements. His most recent work on Kidding has brought him back to television, in a hauntingly beautiful way.
What are your favorite roles Jim Carrey has played? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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