Jim Carrey: The Last Cheeseball

Mr. Popper's Penguins cements its star's status as America's most enduring working ham
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New Line Cinema/20th Century Fox/Warner Bros.

Jim Carrey hasn't acted in a movie since 2008, when he finished filming the little-seen I Love You Phillip Morris (released only last year because of distribution delays). But in Mr. Popper's Penguins, it's like he never left us: He eats up the screen with his aw-shucks grin, takes a soccer ball to the groin, and utters what might be his hammiest catchphrase to date, "Yeahbsolutely!"

These are the kind of antics that made Carrey famous in his first two major Hollywood movies, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask, when he became known as America's most lovable goofball. In many ways, his latest screen role is a return to that ground. He plays a cynical real-estate tycoon whose childhood heart is unlocked by a flock of Arctic penguins shipped to his Manhattan apartment. Suddenly, he plays football with his kids, ice-skates with his ex-wife, and in a scene that could've come straight out of Ace Ventura, dances with the penguins to Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby."

That may seem like a throwback, but it's essentially the same routine Carrey has been doing his whole career. The comedian became known for his larger-than-life personality on the '90s sketch-comedy show In Living Color, in which he also danced to "Ice Ice Baby," though then it served as a satire of white rappers, rather than as cuddly pet choreography. After several small movie parts failed to catch on, Carrey eventually found his niche playing an over-exuberant animal-crime detective in Ace Ventura, which was as panned by critics as it was adored by fans. From Dumb and Dumber to Bruce Almighty, his shtick has only gotten more predictable and predictably successful, recently leading one critic to call him "the new Jerry Lewis."

Carrey is something of a dying breed. The '90s were a golden age for comedians with outsized dispositions and even bigger laughs, among them Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Chris Tucker, Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, and Carrey's In Living Color castmates, the Wayans brothers. All of these guys have either disappeared or switched gears--Williams and Murray have carved out careers as semi-serious actors, while the Wayans brothers have turned to making even more bizarre cult comedies (White Chicks, Little Man). In their place, mainstream comedy has embraced the relatable bros of Judd Apatow movies, who are funny for not trying to be too funny. Yet apart from aging, Carrey has remained basically unchanged. That's part of what makes Mr. Popper's Penguins so remarkable: Somehow, the toothy smiles and nervous tics are still charming, reminding us of what we loved about his early days. He's our last, great cinematic cheeseball.

It's not like Carrey hasn't tried taking a different tack. He has consistently sought out roles that show a more sinister side of his personality, starting with 1996's The Cable Guy, which went from a mixed critical reception to becoming a cult artifact. Other times, his more serious projects have been lauded even while Carrey himself seems sidelined by their success (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show, for which he was famously denied an Oscar nod). And when he drifts too far from his trademark material, the results are almost always disastrous, as in the critically deplored The Number 23 and The Majestic, an homage to old Hollywood that turned out to be one of the city's more notable big-budget bombs. For whatever reason, audiences only seem to connect with Carrey when they know exactly what Carrey is in for. I Love You Phillip Morris, about a gay con man and his troubled love life, was widely considered his best work by critics when it came out. "With his manic glare, ferociously eager smile, hyperkinetic body language, and talent for instant self-transformation," Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Carrey has rarely been more charismatic on the screen." But when Mr. Popper's Penguins comes out, I Love You Phillip Morris will barely seem like a footnote in his acting history.

Carrey's problem isn't unique among comedians, whose raucous live routines don't always easily translate to nuanced, high-profile movie work. After a prolific and controversial stand-up career, Eddie Murphy quickly settled into a grinning screen persona (wise-cracking convict, Detroit cop, lascivious vampire) from which he still hasn't escaped. When he made fun of himself in Bowfinger, it was regarded as an "intelligent" oddity. Now, he's considered bankable for family movies almost exclusively. In Mr. Popper's Penguins, Carrey's character faces a similar midlife transition: take the paycheck or embrace what he loves most? Mr. Popper chooses a vacation to the ice caps. Carrey, at least for now, will stick with the paycheck.