Jim Carrey caught a lot of grief last year when The Cable Guy tanked at the box office. Carrey was way out of line, doomsayers yelped, to have deviated so far and in such a dark direction from his established, money-in-the-bank persona of the double-jointed dimwit for whom a lobotomy would be an improvement. What these yahoos failed to realize was that the funniest stuff in Cash-and-Carrey's billion-dollar babies was the twisted, more demented material. When, in Dumb and Dumber, Carrey crouches pathetically in a men's room stall awaiting a beating--or worse--from a burly redneck and begins to whimper to himself in a squeaky voice, "Find a happy place," that's not exactly feel-good fun.
But to be honest, Carrey has never been in a perfect, or even serviceable, vehicle. Even his most popular movies get by on a mere handful of sublimely silly moments, padded to feature length by halfhearted plot mechanics. The Cable Guy was no worse than Carrey's blockbusters; if you dare to go back and look at that movie again, now that the initial shock has worn off, you'll see he's really the same zany guy pulling off some weird shtick (his version of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" might be his downright funniest bit on film to date).
However, if you must argue that Carrey went too far for his audience to conceivably follow him with The Cable Guy, then he's insanely overcompensating in Liar Liar. This effort frequently finds Carrey in warm-fuzzy mode, which is to gag for; watching Carrey go soft and sensitive is a lot more frightening than anything he tried in The Cable Guy. Carrey's hugging kids in this movie, for chrissakes, and if there's one actor I don't want to see hugging kids, it's Jim Carrey. If kids must be hugged, let Tom Cruise or Kevin Costner do it--Carrey's the man with the elastic face and the splayed limbs talking with his ass and pushing his nostrils up around his eyeballs. Hugging kids isn't expanding your horizons, Jim; it's wussing out. Still, it probably won't matter, because those requisite moments of exquisite stupidity remain intact, and the fans, who have never been that demanding in the first place, should be satisfied.
Carrey plays Fletcher Reid, a weasely attorney who, instead of spending time with his son (Justin Cooper), invariably leaves him with lame excuses for his absence. The kid makes a wish that Pop will go a day without lying; movie logic dictates that the wish somehow comes true and, as they say, mayhem ensues. See, Fletcher has the most dubious of cases on the docket that day: A venal floozy (a role Jennifer Tilly was born to play...again and again and again) is suing her upright ex-husband for half his fortune even though she signed a prenup saying she gets zilch in the event of her inevitable promiscuity; rampant dishonesty is the only way to win such a case. When Fletcher realizes his malady, he goes into a panic that allows Carrey to mug and flail as only he can.
Some of it's funny; some isn't. When Fletcher sputters apoplectically in court by way of explaining what shaky ground his case stands upon, or when he flamboyantly screeches about his powerlessness to deal with a Cro-Magnon tow-truck operator, Carrey's his reliably loopy self. But when Fletcher insults the partners in his law firm--and they respond with laughter--the scene is simply contrivances built upon contrivances.
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Liar Liar is written by Paul Guay and Steven Mazur (The Little Rascals)--who seem to have accepted paychecks for typing in "Carrey does something really crazy here" at frequent intervals in their leaden exposition--and directed by Tom Shadyac (The Nutty Professor and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), whose talent as a director seems to be shining product to a high-concept sheen. His visual style and the kind of performances he draws from actors can be reduced to one word: obvious. When the film ends with a string of outtakes, it's a tacit admission that Carrey's screwups are funnier than anything the behind-the-camera guys could cook up.
Actually, the premise here is not a bad one, and one that could have been worked with a modicum of effort into a blistering little comedy. But it looks as if The Cable Guy was tanking about the time this was in production, and the filmmakers decided to play it safe and churn out wall-to-wall bland. Most egregious is John Debney's horrifically patronizing score--when he turns up his string section, you nearly expect sap to run from the theater's speakers.
In steamrollering the story's edginess and jury-rigging Carrey into a cuddly character, the moral-minded filmmakers carelessly devised a swell lesson for younger viewers: It's OK to be an "inconsiderate prick" and a "bad father" (Fletcher's self-assessments during his day of honesty) if you can screw your face into zany contortions. (In a not-so-inside joke, Carrey observes of creating funny faces, "Some people make a good living that way.") When, in Robert Altman's The Player, the protagonist had ruined the lives of many honorable people around him and still had love and happiness showered on him in the final reel, it was a bitter goof, a sage commentary on how empty movies have become. When a similar narrative pattern occurs in Liar Liar, it comments on the same thing, only this time unwittingly.
Jim Carrey, Maura Tierney, Jennifer Tilly, Swoosie Kurtz, Amanda Donohoe. Written by Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur. Directed by Tom Shadyac. Opens Friday.