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Carrey aces it

Note: If by any chance you do not know the secret of "The Truman Show," even though all of the TV ads reveal it, give yourself a treat and see the movie before reading this or any other article about the movie. If you do know, read on.

A few weeks before "The Truman Show" opened, I was talking with its director, Peter Weir, about the idea of a man whose life is lived entirely on television. He doesn't have a single private moment. And Weir quietly observed, "Princess Di lived a life like that."

A few days later, I mentioned this to Jim Carrey, the star of the movie, and he nodded: "Oh, yeah, sure. In fact, I've lived a life a little bit like Truman in the last few years."

And so he has. After half a dozen enormous comedy hits in a row, Jim Carrey is one of the few stars able to pull down a $20 million paycheck and deserve it; his movies open strongly and have legs, and it is becoming increasingly clear that he's not a goofball one-hit wonder but an enormously talented man who, like him or not, is a fact of life. That gets him a lot of publicity.

I haven't liked all (or even most) of his movies, but I have almost always liked him in them; his energy is a natural force, he takes an obvious joy in entertaining, and for a guy who played Dumber in "Dumb and Dumber," he is very smart.

Now he's opening in "The Truman Show," which is gathering the kinds of reviews and advance audience responses that "Forrest Gump" received a few years ago. It's not a typical Carrey performance (he doesn't have any entrances through the hind quarters of a hippopotamus), but a skilled exercise in of satire and light comedy, and it could win him an Oscar nomination.

The opening scenes seem carefully modulated to orient the audience, which on the opening days is likely to contain a lot of Carrey fans: Weir and Carrey let the audience know it's okay to laugh, but that this isn't your typical Carrey movie.

"It was a very carefully thought out thing with Peter and I as to how much humor should be shown up front," Carrey told me. "We didn't wanna mislead the audience. I believe that 'The Cable Guy' kinda misled the audience--the marketing most of all. The audience thought they were going to 'Ace Ventura' and it was a dark-edged comedy. But in this one, Peter was amazing at finding the right now. I come full-bore, but I am directable, you know."

Although Truman Burbank, the Carrey character, is the most famous person in the world, the movie isn't really about the pressures of celebrity because Truman, of course, doesn't know he's on TV. "For me," Carrey said, "the media is only a backdrop for this person who needs to separate himself from the safe things in life, and go into the abyss. Which we all have to do if we wanna end up doing something we love and being with someone we love."

Was there a little window, I asked, between when you were trying to become famous, and when you were trying to get shelter from your fame? You start out, you're unemployable, nobody's heard of you, and then you're living in a fishbowl...

"There was a thrilling moment when, in fact, I was here in this very hotel in Chicago when 'Ace Ventura' opened up. And it was like suddenly, you know: Okay! I got their attention! And things were okay."

Before that was a time when you were always referred to as "the white guy on 'In Living Color'." You were doing terrific work and people weren't quite sure exactly who you were.

"I thought I was going to hell half the time. Literally. After the first Fire Marshal Bill sketch I did, I walked home just thinking, well, I've brought evil into the world; now I'm gonna suffer for it."

We were talking in a room of the Four Seasons, drinking coffee, reviewing his career, and I was thinking that Carrey was being rather civil to a critic who wrote of "Ace Venture" that "Carrey plays Ace as if he's being clocked on an Energy-O-Meter, and paid by the calorie expended."

"You ripped me, totally," he said, somehow smiling nostalgically. "That's your prerogative. I don't feel bad about those things at all. When I read it I was in a restaurant with my gang and I was reading the review and I was going, oh man, that's brutal. But at the same time, I have this automatic thing, maybe it's a defense mechanism, but I really like to look at the negatives as things to learn from, and I went, well, I hope the movie does good but, wow, a lot of people aren't going to like it."

A lot of people didn't, but it still grossed more than $200 million. And then came "Dumb and Dumber," and "The Mask, and "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls," and "Batman Forever," and "Liar, Liar," and although some of them didn't work for me (I liked "The Mask" and "Liar Liar," and Carrey's Riddler in the Batman movie), I began to suspect that I had approached "Ace Ventura" with the wrong set of expectations. Carrey had to do what all original artists have to do, inform his audience that he exists as a fact and not as a copy of anything else. I wish I could claim that I knew that from the first, but even the closest scrutiny of my 1994 review reveals no such insight. "Before 'Ace' came out," Carrey was telling me, "I spent 15 years in the comedy clubs and I had promises of fame and promises of glory that faded away. The next thing you hear is, studio executives go, no, you've had your chance. I've been up and down like that a good five or six times in my life, so that when success came in my 30s I just thanked God. Because I don't think I'd wanna be where Leonardo DiCaprio is right now. That's very confusing, to be so successful so young. It's so hard to deal with, ego-wise."

It's strange, looking at your filmography and finding that you had a whole career before people knew who you were... You were in eight movies. You were the guy in "Pink Cadillac."

"Yeah, the wacky cousin or something like that."

I was watching one of your films on an airplane once with the earphones off....

"I hate the way they cut the films for airplanes. I won't do the looping, either."

Where you have to change all the four-letter words?

"Yeah. I get in the dubbing booth and something wells up inside me. I'm having a love scene and they want me to say, 'I'd love to kiss your sandwich,' or whatever. I'd rather they bleeped it, and just left it to the audience's imagination."

Anyway, I said, watching you on this airplane, without the dialog or the plot, I could see that you moved like a character in a cartoon. You know? They don't just start here and run there....

"They go sproooinggg!"

Yeah. They back up before they run. They kind of have to cock themselves first.

"Yeah, absolutely."

And I thought, Carrey doesn't hold anything back. He is totally up there.

"I am willing to make an idiot of myself."

Like a six-minute cartoon.

"Absolutely. I think in cartoons. I used to walk down the street when I was a kid and see the coyote's Acme blueprint on top of things, you know. I'd see a pile of garbage, and I'd see the little dots going over it and the little line and I'd somehow figure out whether or not I could leap over it. That's how I'd think. Like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon."

Sometimes your body language on the screen is the body language of a cartoon character. Not by using gimmicks such as fast motion, but because you physically go into hyperdrive. Like in "Liar, Liar," when you bang yourself with the toilet seat.

"Well, 'The Truman Show' is a much thicker soup, but I believe that the characters I've done so far have been totally appropriate to the tone of the films. Ace Ventura was a cartoon; when this guy who's like no one else on the planet enters a room, he's the fly in the ointment guy."

Did that begin to take form when you were a kid?

"I've always been trying to be somebody special. That's how it started out. As a kid, I was in my room when everybody was out playing. I was trying to get Johnny Mathis down, so that I could entertain people at Christmas time or whatever. But at a certain point, when I was about 19, I had to go off on my own and find my own way. I quit doing what was working for me and I used to go up to the Comedy Store to find something new. I promised myself that I wouldn't repeat a word that I said the night before. Two-thirds of the time it was garbage, but sometimes things would come out that were really kinda beautiful, and nice. That's the abyss, you know. You have to go right to the edge."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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