A three-media push in 2020 from our weirdest entertainer
Jim Carrey only appeared in one big-screen movie the last four years and that movie was Sonic the Hedgehog. He played the villain, Dr. Robotnik.
The comedic star, who used to be a reliably annual box-office draw, has been plenty busy doing other things. He wrapped up the third season of his canceled TV series on Showtime, Kidding. He wrote a semi-autobiographical novel with Dana Vachon that they released in September. Most visibly, he played presidential candidate Joe Biden toward the end of the year on Saturday Night Live.
But the three roles he played most publicly this year, movie villain, celebrity author, and SNL walk-on talent, most clearly show where the 58-year-old’s head is these days and what kind of legacy he’s still working to carve out.
Domo arigotnik, Dr. Robotnik
In the surprisingly good Sonic film, Carrey goes full blast into the mode that made him famous as a wildly inventive movie presence in movies like Ace Ventura and The Mask. Leaving any shred of subtlety at the door, Carrey brings his vintage A-game to the king of generic, militaristic movie villain that, say, a J.K. Simmons could have played straight, or Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller could have done with a winking irony. Instead, Carrey infuses the part with his own brand of weirdness and physicality that he hasn’t shown on film since he played The Grinch in 2000.
It’s quite a performance, and one that film snobs without kids or any interest in videogame adaptations are unlikely to ever see. As a statement on Carrey, though, the portrayal feels like a triumphant assertion that he can still play those kinds of parts if he wants to, that he’s not too old to throw down, and to do it successfully.
But meanwhile, people widely criticized Carrey’s take on Biden for SNL, even as it felt like the actor was doing a lot of work, a lot of straining, exhausting work, to get the impression right. It may have been that stench of effort that turned off some critics and viewers. In the end, Carrey modulated the wild portrayal more toward his physical gifts than Biden’s actual persona, even if Jim Carrey got the voice just about perfect.
He’s since bowed out of the role, saying it was only ever supposed to be a six-week gig, but it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that if the impression had been working like comedic dynamite, Lorne Michaels would have found a way to keep Carrey coming back (ask Alec Baldwin).
The SNL gig signaled Carrey as enjoying being part of a comedic institution like SNL, while also wanting to do something, anything, to get Biden elected. He said in a Tweet, “I would love to go forward knowing that Biden was the victor because I nailed that shit. But I am just one in a long line of proud, fighting SNL Bidens!”
A novel idea
And then we have Carrey’s unnerving debut novel, billed as a hilariously snarky and sneaky semi-autobiographical Hollywood story. And although Memoirs and Misinformation is only about 272 pages, it’s a lot to unpack. Here is Jim Carrey trying to break the conventions of a Hollywood tell-all, but insisting that it’s a mix of fiction and his own real life. The experiment doesn’t really work. The clearly real parts read like self pity or self aggrandizement and don’t speak well of Jim Carrey’s self image. And the fictional parts go completely off the rails after about 200 pages of wandering through a doomed Hollywood love-and-sex story and a farcical quest to make a movie about Mao Zedong written by Charlie Kaufman.
There’s a lot of satirical grist, like something that could have appeared in a Bruce Wagner opus a decade ago, with bits that skewer Kelsey Grammar and Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt, showing the emptiness of the homes of the rich and famous. But Carrey’s target always seem to be Carrey, who pathetically fixates on Oscar awards he didn’t win and women who couldn’t love him enough or his inability to reach his full potential as an artist.
Just when you start to wonder if this is Carrey’s way of letting us know he has become emotionally unhinged and increasingly detached from reality over the last 20 years as his career has descended from previous heights, the novel becomes Mars Attacks! but much less funny. It’s also icky in the ways that it calls out Carrey’s past romances and traumatic family relationships in ways that are probably deeply uncomfortable for all involved, Jim Carrey included.
That’s a shame because there’s some good writing in Memoirs and Misinformation and some truly inspired comedy, such as the heroic, Earth-defending role it creates for Nicholas Cage, “a man whose artistic bravery had always given him courage.”
Carrey and Vachon gift poignant life to some ideas on the near future of VR-style filmmaking and the use of never-aging digital likenesses of actors. They spend a lot of time weighing the power dynamics of relationships between stars and non-stars. And the artistic hubris of trying to make a film about making a film about Carrey portraying Chinese communist leader is convincingly bonkers. I await the spinoff novel that’s just about Charlie Kaufman as a modern-day Hunter S. Thompson.
But these great ideas never pay dividends as Carrey touches on and abandons them in order to barrel toward a ridiculous, nihilistic, and unsatisfying finale. Like the SNL gig, the Sonic movie, and a lot of Carrey’s roles in the 2010s, the book is the result of a wandering, restless mind that wants to express everything and settle on nothing. Perhaps this will lead to some sort of artistic breakthrough, but for now it’s nice to know that Jim Carrey hasn’t stopped trying to find ways to let us know that he’s still funny and that he still wants to entertain us.