It's the year of Jim Carrey, and critics are still in denial. Back in February, this rubber-cheeked, pinwheel-eyed loony with a mouthful of piano keys starred in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as a dick who talked through his ass, played football in a tutu and twisted his face with a toilet plunger. The reviews were scalding ("He's a hyper goon," said Roger Ebert), but audiences voted thumbs up by making Ace a $70 million box-office bonanza and Carrey a star. The 32-year-old Ontario native — the lone white guy on TV's In Living Color (memorably nutso as the pyromaniacal Fire Marshal Bill) — is on a roll. He did Ace and The Mask for peanuts ($350,000 and $450,000, respectively); now he'll collect $5 million for playing the Riddler in Batman Forever and $7 million for doing the obvious in Dumb and Dumber. So call him jerkier than Jerry Lewis, geekier than Jim (Ernest) Varney and more manic than Robin Williams. You can't beat Carrey.
What you can do is join him. Though Carrey remains on a collision course with good taste, The Mask makes a persuasive case for reconsideration. It's the summer's funniest movie — a lowbrow farce done with high-tech expertise by director Chuck Russell (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3) and a flair for mischief that is uniquely Carrey's. The Mike Werb script is strictly comic-strip formula, but it does the job. Carrey plays nerdy bank teller Stanley Ipkiss, a dud who turns stud when he covers his face with a mask that he finds by chance and brings home to the dump apartment he shares with Milo, a Jack Russell terrier who steals every scene Carrey doesn't snatch first.
Stanley moans about his dull life. His pal Charlie (Richard Jeni) urges Stanley to cut loose at the Coco Bongo club. That's where bank customer Tina Carlyle — dishy model Cameron Diaz in her film debut — sings for her supper. But Stanley can't get by the bouncer or figure out that Tina's been flirting with him because her hood boyfriend, Dorian (Peter Greene), plans to rob the bank.
Stanley is a loser until he puts on the mask. Then, zap, he's a green-faced human tornado in a zoot suit. Milo is as thunderstruck as the audience. George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic performs miracles with the special effects. As the Mask, Stanley can change shape, fly out of windows, dance Tina into a sexual frenzy, explode cars, grow guns out of his arms, mimic Dirty Harry and launch into a Desi Arnaz number to distract the cops.
Of course, Crazylegs Carrey is his own special effect, and the film turns him loose to twist, gyrate and contort at will. He seems tickled to let the ILM wizards use his face and body as digital Silly Putty; he's half-man, half-'toon. Stanley gets so worked up watching Tina sing torch songs at the Coco Bongo club that his peepers pop, his jaw drops a foot and his tongue slithers lasciviously across the table.
Carrey is a comic fireball in a tour de force display of physical antics that should convert his most rabid detractors. And his vocal overdrive — like a TV pitchman tripping on acid — is a hoot. "Smokin'," shrieks Stanley, admiring his transformation. The new Stanley wants to party: "Why? Because I gotta!" Putting on the mask unleashes all Stanley's innermost desires. "Ooooh, somebody stop me," he cries with a mad cackle. Few are strong enough, though Lieutenant Kellaway, played with deadpan wit by Peter Riegert, makes an effort to put a lid on Stanley's rampaging id.
Those who believe nothing short of Prozac can slow Carrey down will welcome his sweetness with Diaz as Stanley tries to express his feelings for Tina without relying on the mask. Gentle humor can also be found in the scenes with Milo, who climbs a wall to spring Stanley from jail and then goes for the guard's cheese when Stanley wants keys.
But the crowds won't flock to The Mask for subtlety. They want to see Carrey play monkey boy and go bananas. That he does, especially in a free-for-all climax that pulls out all the stops in head-spinning hilarity. Even when the gags are labored, Carrey stays light on his feet. This gifted clown has found the right vehicle for his souped-up silliness. Carrey is the ultimate party dude, and like the masked man says, this party is smokin'.