Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
LOS ANGELES -- It's a touchy situation. You describe a guy's movie as one of the worst of the year, and then it grosses $200 million and makes him into Hollywood's flavor of the month. You say it wasn't funny, and the audiences can't stop laughing. Now you're supposed to walk into a room and interview the guy. Hey, let's hope he has a sense of humor.
"So answer me this," I said, trying to look petinent. "How did I miss the point of 'Ace Ventura: Pet Detective'?"
Jim Carrey spread his hands, palms up, and then brought them together in the universal sign language for Come, Let Us Reason Together.
"Well, I don't know," he said. "I don't know how you review stuff. Do you sit by yourself in a room, and . . ."
I saw it in a screening room with a bunch of other people, all movie critics.
Carrey nodded, as if to say, 'Well, There You Have It.'
"See, to me," he said, "I knew that this movie was either a hate-it or love-it thing. The only thing that bothered me about the negative reviews was that we didn't get credit for trying something that was all the way out. No holds barred. When you get a script like 'Pet Detective,' if you try to play it real, it would have been boring as hell. Horrifying. So, I was looking to do something that was really unacceptable."
I nodded, and opened my own hands palm up, and brought them together.
"One critic," I said, "felt that you had no talent at all and should never be in another movie. I didn't feel that way. I said I hated the movie, too, but that you'd done good work in the past, and I was sure you'd do good work again in the future."
This was Carrey's opening to say, "Gee! Thanks a whole lot!" But he sighed.
"Yeah, some of the reviews were pretty brutal. You know what? Some of the worst ones came in a couple of days before the movie opened and I thought, well, this is keeping my feet on the ground."
He looked at me sincerely, and I thought, yes, I believe he really thought that. And some other things, too.
Humor is not debatable. It's like sex. Either you're aroused or you're not. Nobody can reason you around to their point of view.
"Completely personal," Carrey said.
And if you're not laughing, nobody can explain what's funny.
"Not at all."
. . . Not so different at all.
These monosyllabic replies, which look so spartan on the page, were delivered with a smile and a certain ironic cast to the eye. Carrey, who has worked as a stand-up comedian for years, who was the resident white guy on "In Living Color," is not one of your tortured comic martyrs whose good humor masks a neurotic churning inside. Despite his harrowing "In Living Color" portrait of the crispy Fire Marshal Bill, he seems genuinely good-humored; I was not surprised when, later in our conversation, he confessed that a lot of his shtick was created when he was a kid, performing on the coffee table in front of his family. That he'd stolen gestures and behavior from relatives, especially his father, "who is like a cartoon." A cartoonlike quality.
And there is something cartoonish about Jim Carrey, too, an ability to mold his face and voice into improbably exaggerated caricatures. In his new film, "The Mask" (opening Friday), he plays a mild-mannered bank clerk named Stanley Ipkiss who finds an ancient mask and discovers that, when he slips it on, he is suddenly transformed into a zoot-suited dervish with a green face and a four-lane grin, who can whirl around a room like Sylvester on the trail of Tweety Pie.
The facial makeup for "The Mask" was devised by experts to reflect Carrey's own facial expressions. It is not a mask, but a latex creation that moves when Carrey's face moves, so that his personality comes through. The result is an oddly convincing comic superhero - bizarre, yet somehow human.
In the movie, the meek bank clerk falls in love with a nightclub singer named Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz), who is likely to become this year's overnight sex bomb. In his alter ego as the Mask, he is able to whirl her around the floor in dance routines that suggest, as Carrey delicately put it, "Fred Astaire on acid."
In both "Ace Ventura" and "The Mask," Carrey projects a complete comic persona, an ingratiating, outgoing nerd who is actually very cool - the kind of guy who never sounds more sincere than when he's being completely phony. The character is all there, on the screen, perfected, a sort of mating of Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams. I asked him where it came from. A lifelong ambition.
"Shows I would put on in the basement. I've never wanted to do anything else. I was driven since I was a little kid to do this."
And the over-the-top stuff?
"Total desperation. Wanting to be different. Wanting to be a cartoon. When I sit back and I look at my father tell a joke, he's a very strange guy and I never really realized until one day I sat down and really watched him. He's like a cartoon. I mean, he's just not natural. I use my father in a lot of different things. Stanley Ipkiss is a lot of my father. He's like deaf in one ear, so everything you say to him is, 'Ah? What? Eh? Oh, yeah! YEAH!' "
When he sees your movies, does he send you a bill?
"Everybody in the family does, basically. I take from everybody. That's what you do. There are phrases in there that my brothers and sisters will say. They kid me that I stole their personalities and went to Hollywood."
When he first arrived on the comedy club circuit, still in his teens, Carrey established himself as an impressionist. Before long he was known as the best young impressionist in the business. Then he realized that was a dead end. A long road to success.
"It's been a long road," he said. "It's been 15 years professionally. I started in the comedy clubs to do stand-up, which I still do. I did impressions at the beginning, but I got to the point where I saw where I realized you gotta be an original. You gotta be something different.
"I found myself coming up with all these ideas that didn't fit into the format of John Wayne sitting in a restaurant, or whatever. So I couldn't do them. I was an 'impressionist.' So, people wanted impressions. It's like if you go onstage and you juggle. If you juggle for five minutes at the end of your act, you're a juggler.
"And so I just stopped doing impressions. I completely cut them out and Mitzi Shore (the godmother of comedy, who runs the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard) went nuts. 'You're the King of Impressions!' she said. I said, what's my thrill going to be? That I walk up to Clint Eastwood and do Clint Eastwood for Clint Eastwood? It's nothing to me. I said, 'Hey, Mitzi, they freaked out when Bob Dylan went electric. People don't like change.'
"So, what should I do then? I decided, well, maybe I'll go up onstage every night with nothing and see what happens."
No safety net.
"I said to myself that I would not repeat a line from one night to the next. And I would go up onstage every single night."
Where did you find your starting point?
"I just walked up onstage. I had no idea."
They announced your name . . .
And you walked out . . .
"Yeah, and my mind would be blank. I was sweating bullets. I figured if I could do that and could make a third of it funny, then it's like learning how to do a slapshot with weight on your stick, so when you take it off, you shoot like a mother. So I did that for about six months at the Comedy Store and in that time, I built, like, an audience. The other comics all of a sudden started watching me. I was like starting over in the business every night. It was horrifying."
Were there a couple of nights where it just didn't work at all?
"Tons of nights. Many nights. Many nights when I just bit it completely. Where I had people throwing things at me. Nights where I went home and crawled into bed."
Other comics came to watch this?
"They wanted to see the blood. But from that came people talking about me. 'What is this guy doing? He's insane!' After a while, word of mouth happened."
There must have been a night, though, when you walked out there with your mind a blank and you opened your mouth and something came out that was . . . perfect. What was the best opening line you had?
"I don't know about the line, but I remember one night Damon Wayans came to see me. It was 2 a.m. at the Comedy Store, and I went on for two hours. I was unstoppable. And another night, Sam Kinison was at the back of the room heckling me, and I just buried him, and it was practically unheard of to be able to do that to Sam; he was a brilliant guy."
There's real aggression that goes on in stand-up, isn't there?
"It's definitely an aggressive thing. It's attacking something. Some of my best memories are of the nights where it tanked, where I fought with the audience. I've literally been up on tables at the Comedy Store with a bottle in my hand, with six guys wanting to kill me." A brutal world.
Comedians are always talking about how they died, or they killed people.
"It's a brutal world, the comedy club world."
But you seem like a fairly pleasant person, actually. You don't seem to have the killer instinct.
"I do, but it's like I've got a heavy 'Grapes of Wrath' kind of philosophy: Like, no matter what happens, don't let it make you mad."
You're on the table holding a bottle and six people are trying to kill you, but you're not mad.
He considered. "No, I'm mad at that point. But I don't let it stay with me. I let it go. I get mad, but it's when you let that become part of your character, and every day you wake up mad at somebody, it's just not worth it for me."
Although "Ace Ventura" made Carrey a movie star (with a rumored asking price of $7 million for his next picture), he was famous within the smaller world of California comedy for years, and worked fairly steadily in supporting roles on television and in the movies, in addition to his "In Living Color" gig. What was it, I wondered, that led to "Ace Ventura" and its incredible breakthrough, a goofy-sounding movie with an unknown lead and generally terrible reviews that became one of the year's most popular films?
"Well, when I finally agreed to do 'Ace,' I made a complete choice to go as far out as I possibly could. No half measures. 'Ace,' for me, is basically making fun of the hero genre. It's a complete spoof of my own ego. Like, what would I want to do if I had the fantasy of doing anything I want? Well, I want to be able to beat anyone up, and I want to get all the girls. It's an ego trip, basically." The perfect role.
There must be a lot of people who think if they could only get the perfect role, they could make a hit movie. Obviously, "Ace" was the perfect role for you. How did that happen?
"Well, first of all, Morgan Creek was after me for about two years to do the movie, but I hated the script. It was horrifying."
Why did they feel it had to be you?
"I don't know. Finally, they said, 'It's a no-lose situation. You can rewrite it. When you finish rewriting it, you don't want to do it, you still don't have to.' So I just wrote it down scene by scene, and there literally isn't one line from the original script in there. I said, 'First of all, what do people want to see? What do I want to do? What are people fascinated with?' Like on a news telecast, they save the shark attack for the last, because they know we'll be glued to that set, even if it's a little sand shark that only rubbed up against somebody. So I figured I gotta get attacked by a great white. So, just throw these things in."
"Then the director, Tom Shadyac, and I got together, and I said, 'I've always paid attention to the acting lessons, and the "less is more" stuff, but I'm sick of it. I'm sick of being safe.' And so he said, 'I want let you go; I want to let you do what you do onstage.' It was like a new idea to me but it was also just a complete relief. It was like, `Well, we're going to get in a lot of trouble.' And that's basically what happened. Every night after we went home from the set, we were gripped by fear."
But you thought that "Ace Ventura" was going to be big.
"I had no idea. I was in Chicago doing a show at Harper College (in Palatine) the night the movie opened, and it was like election night. We were all in the hotel room freaking out, waiting for the first box-office returns, and I'm like in the fetal position in the corner."
He shook his head and winced, making both gestures just a little larger than life. "I knew it was the kind of thing that would either make me very popular or ruin me, basically. It was one or the other. If you go out that far, and it doesn't work, you're in a lot of trouble. You don't get a second chance."
But Carrey did get a second chance. And in fact, New Line Cinema is blessing itself that it gave him that chance, by starring him in "The Mask" before "Ace Ventura" opened and his salary septupled.
What's your next picture after "The Mask?"
"It's called 'Dumb and Dumber.' Another one the critics will love! With myself and Jeff Daniels."
Which one is dumber?
"We don't know yet."
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