The Existential Clown

Why Jim Carrey makes us uncomfortable

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Video: "The Fears of a Clown"

James Parker dissects two of Jim Carrey's most unnervingly subversive onscreen moments, and contrasts them with a scene from the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day.

In the year 2038, when we’re all living out of corroded Kia Sportages, beneath an ozone layer so threadbare you can toast a slice of bread simply by hanging it out the window, scavengers will make a discovery. In the basement of a ruined midwestern mall they will find, miraculously preserved, a fresco depicting the totemic movie scenes of Jim Carrey: Carrey as Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, standing in a private elevator shaft of rainfall on an otherwise dry beach; as Fletcher Reede in Liar Liar, being attacked by the pen in his own hand; as Charlie Baileygates, the schizophrenic highway patrolman of Me, Myself & Irene, strangling an enormous cow; as Bruce Almighty’s Bruce Nolan, with the power of God in his index finger, causing fire hydrants to pop and the skirts of desirable women to billow up around their waists; and as Ace Ventura, bent over, hands on rump, ventriloquizing through parted butt cheeks. After rubbing at the wall with ragged sleeves, the discoverers will fall back in awe. And the voice of the tribal priest will be heard, apostrophizing this huge graffito. “Oh, modern man,” he will say, in a voice rich with pity. “How lonely you were, and how divided. And how you loved to talk out of your ass.”

Jim Carrey will loom large in our shattered posterity, I believe, because his filmography amounts to a uniquely sustained engagement with the problem of the self. Who knows how the self became such a problem, or when we began to feel the falseness in our nature? “There’s another man within me, that’s angry with me,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici, three and a half centuries before the scene in Liar Liar where the hero stuffs his own head into the toilet bowl. Other clowns have risen since Carrey first stormed the multiplexes with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective—Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen—but for more than a decade now, he has been the go-to guy for high-concept metaphysics, for Hollywood’s sci-fi of the self. How about … an insurance salesman who discovers that his whole life is an elaborate fiction created by a malign TV producer?! Or—yeah!—a mendacious lawyer compelled to tell the truth for 24 hours?! Or even a blacklisted screenwriter (The Majestic) who loses his memory and wakes up to find that everybody thinks he’s a war hero?!

Movie after movie finds Carrey either confronting God (“Smite me, O mighty Smiter!” he roars in Bruce Almighty) or enacting, violently and outrageously, some version of the dilemma identified by the Spanish existentialist José Ortega y Gasset—that man, as he exists in the world, is “equivalent to an actor bidden to represent the personage which is his real I.” One wonders what the French make of him. Here in America, we’ve been content to regard him as a blockbustering goofball, but in France, beautiful France, where philosophy is king and Jerry Lewis is awarded the Légion d’Honneur, might not they be readying garlands for Jim Carrey?

Yes Man, out this month, is Carrey’s latest existential parable. If, as has been speculated, Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard shared a libertine moment in the salons and cellars of 19th-century Copenhagen, they could have brainstormed this movie over drinks. Carrey plays Carl Allen, an office drone and cautious Cuthbert who abruptly starts saying “Yes!” to everything—Korean lessons, cans of Red Bull, love, and life itself. This impulsive assent to existence is characteristically presented in the form of a gift/curse, laid upon Carrey, in this case, by a New Age positivity guru played by Terence Stamp. (The tie-in with Red Bull is a brilliant stroke, of course—no other legal product so generously extends the promise of turning you, if only for half an hour, into Jim Carrey.)

Leaping into lived truth also gets you the girl: Yes Man, like so many Carrey movies, trails off sappily into love. Really, though, where else could it go? To quote Martin Buber: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The point is to commit yourself. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind imagines a pair of lovers, played by Carrey and Kate Winslet, in the heat-death of their togetherness: bored and disgusted, each submits to a disreputable clinical procedure in which the whole relationship is expunged from their memory banks. It works, but somehow, as freshly minted strangers, they meet again; they are drawn to each other; they begin to fall in love. Then the attempt at mutual erasure comes to light: they learn that they have been through all of this already. What to do? In an overlit, discolored hallway, they stare at each other, grim with foreknowledge—and decide to go for it all over again. How beautiful! Ghastly as they look under the fluorescent tubes, the lovers stand together in this instant on a scuffed little summit of human dignity: by embracing their situation (and each other), they have transcended it.

All of which would be the sheerest philosophical prattle if Jim Carrey didn’t so consistently, as a performer, embody these various propositions. Here, buzzing in his shoulder sockets, is the struggle for authenticity; there, warping his tongue, is the torment of becoming. At his most Carrey-esque, he is always trapped mid-metamorphosis, wrestling visibly with the sort of transformative inner pressure that in another context would produce a superhero—or a man-size cockroach. The Mask got it all wrong by making this explicit, by separating the character of Stanley Ipkiss, shat-upon bank clerk, from the green-headed, dance-floor-dominating pimp he became when he put on his magic mask. (Jim Carrey with makeup? And special effects? Jesus, what a waste!) The Farrelly brothers’ Me, Myself & Irene, on the other hand, got it exactly right. Charlie Baileygates, Rhode Island state trooper, cuckold, butt of the world, a 6-foot-2-inch walking punch line (like Truman Burbank), goes to confession. “There’s something bubbling up inside of me, Father,” he whispers fiercely, “and I’m afraid that someday … I’m gonna explode!” “Where does this rage come from, my son?” murmurs his confessor. “I don’t know,” Charlie says. “I’m probably just being paranoid here, but I get the feeling that the entire town is laughing at me behind my back.” The priest leans forward: “Charlie? That you?” When Charlie explodes, there are no gimmicks. A hissing sound, a distension of the jaw, and he has turned into somebody else: it happens, in other words, behind his eyes.

Without violating the singularity of Carrey’s achievement, we can acknowledge that he does have his varying modes—that the explosive physical comedian of Ace Ventura and Liar Liar can be distinguished from the more reined-in and responsible thespian of, say, The Majestic. The former is a creature of spurts and unevenness, clattering from gag to gag, set piece to set piece. His great scenes, his great fits and flare-ups, come jumping out of his often half-baked movies like spikes on a lie detector or surges on a Ouija board. Chip Douglas, the stalker/parasite/no-man of The Cable Guy, is constructed entirely out of such peaks: between the freak-out karaoke version of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and the armored showdown at Medieval Times, he barely exists.

Then there’s earnest Carrey, low-voltage Carrey, Carrey the Oscar chaser, dutifully dialing it down for The Majestic and muting himself in The Truman Show. This Carrey excites a peculiar anxiety: you sit there with your scalp prickling, waiting for him to go off. Which he never does. But Carrey can only play it straight when the rest of the world is crooked—laughing at him, deceiving him, or (as in The Majestic) falsely accusing him. More than all the leaping about, it’s this strange, unnerving subversion or emptying-out of regular- guyness that makes Carrey the representative jester of our time. That manly grip on normality so prized by your Tom Hankses and your Harrison Fords is for Carrey a wild and desperate bluff. The cheesy jut of his upper teeth, the giant shrugs and nods and lunges of bonhomie, the gargoyle affability—his body is one enormous “tell.” (“Good morning!” yodels Truman Burbank, briefcase in hand. “And in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!”) Carrey’s parodic handsomeness only cranks up the dissonance—the sense that we are witnessing a grotesque accommodation between the individual and the crowd, between the imperatives of an authentic existence and the need to rub along in the day-to-day illusion.

This may also be why plenty of moviegoers (my mother-in-law, for example) will tell you that they cannot stand Jim Carrey. A noisome vacancy at the heart of him, a dreadful resounding hollowness, repels them—for a man who regularly pulls down $20 million per picture, his (ahem) “unfavorables” are abnormally high. But they’re getting at the core of his genius, these sensitive souls. Carrey’s dream sequence of movies is a prophecy, a warning that this clanking ego-apparatus in which each of us walks around, this fissured, monumental self, half Job and half Bertie Wooster, cannot be sustained. Out of his own seemingly bottomless disquiet, Carrey writhes and reaches into the bottomless disquiet of his audience. An oracular bum holds up a handwritten cardboard sign in Bruce Almighty: LIFE IS JUST. We know we’re frauds; we fear a reckoning is due.

Carrey is the single performer at his level who seems as though he’d be as happy in a Samuel Beckett play as in a summer blockbuster. Beckett would have dug him, I think—the wintry Irishman liked his clowns, the more existential the better. Mask-faced Buster Keaton turned down the role of Lucky in a 1956 production of Waiting for Godot, but nine years later Beckett managed to corral him into an almost-silent film called Film. It’s a bleak little work, not unexpectedly—Keaton scurries rodent-like by city walls, his porkpie hat in place but his face scarved and averted, ducking from the glances of passersby and pausing only to take his own pulse. Rare is the Carrey movie that doesn’t feature some comparable scene of evasion or solitary, self-diagnosing crisis.

And what a Lucky he would make! One can see him shuffling, hangdog, compressed, with the rope around his neck, then erupting out of nowhere into Lucky’s famous semi-Pentecostal speech: “… A personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions …” “Mêlée, final vociferations,” wrote Beckett in the stage directions. It’s Carrey in excelsis. Perhaps he could deliver it out of his ass.