There was really no reason that I should have liked Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. I’m not large with slapstick comedy. I recognise it as a legitimate art form, but it’s never been my thing. Thus, Jim Carrey (Dumb and Dumber) doing schtick and making faces wasn’t something that was going to draw me to a movie. I never watched In Living Color and never felt I was missing out. I honestly don’t remember what got me into the movie theater to see Ace Ventura, except possibly that my D&D group at the time was a bunch of guys, and they wanted to go.
I always liked Jim Carrey, even when he was still figuring out how to market himself and was calling himself James half the time. I still have my VHS copies of Peggy Sue Got Married and Once Bitten somewhere. He was cute and funny. And you could tell, even then, that he was essentially a cartoon character. From everything I ever heard about In Living Color, he was the guy with the physical comedy and the goofy voices. Ace Ventura was the logical direction for his film career to go from there. And hey, in case it turned out that he couldn’t act well enough to carry the film, there were a bunch of cute animals to distract the audience. His big followup turned out to be The Mask, in which he was an actual cartoon character. I remember reading about it at the time, how the special effects team were told that they needed to turn Jim Carrey into a cartoon character. Apparently their response was, “And you want us to do exactly what?” Let him dance and cover Desi Arnaz Jr numbers, I guess. But I digress.
The plot of Ace Ventura is fairly straightforward at first. Snowflake, mascot of the Miami Dolphins, has gone missing. The Super Bowl is approaching, and, concerned that the disappearance of their mascot is going to affect the performance of his players, the team’s coach decides to hire a pet detective. Enter our hero, Ace Ventura. We, the audience, have met him already, while the opening credits were going on. Ace goes undercover, rescuing a dog who wound up in the custody of a brutish guy, as opposed to his hottie ex. Ace retrieves the pup at great risk to life and limb (his own—the dog is never at visible risk, which is one of the things I like about this movie), and when he mentions his fee, said hottie suggests that she take his pants off instead. Not going to lie: This does set the tone a bit for the whole film as a deliberate aim for a demographic made up primarily of teenage boys. She kneels down out of the shot, and the next thing we know, he is thrashing around like the girl in the beginning of Jaws. Um…okay, writers, if that’s how your sexual fantasies roll, you do you.
Anyway, Ace is hired to find Snowflake. Sadly, local law enforcement is also on the case, headed up by Lieutenant Lois Einhorn (Sean Young). She’s scowly and tough, and clearly isn’t fond of our hero. Can’t really blame her, since he is constantly getting his rocks off by demonstrating how much cleverer he is. I’m convinced that the writers of this film were D&D fans back in the day, because Ace’s stats are way high, and he rolls natural 20s on most of the things he does. A favourite schtick from Ace’s first visit to the precinct is when he bends over and uses his butt as a hand-puppet: “Excuse me, I’d like to ass you a question.” According to IMDB, this was a bit brought over from a writing session at In Living Color, and Carrey and another cast member almost came to blows—presumably over something other than the bit.
One of the things that makes this movie work is how self-aware it is. It knows it is goofy, with humour that is occasionally in questionable taste. It’s not trying to be appropriate for your kids, and it doesn’t care if you’re trying to impress a date. I always feel like the beauty of Ace himself is that he knows he is in a movie, whereas nobody else does. At one point, Ace is trying to sneak out of a party and into another part of the rich host’s house, and it becomes a bona fide Mission: Impossible sequence, complete with the famous music. Carrey sells it completely, playing it as if it is terribly hazardous stunt work, and it takes a second before you remember that he was essentially just going into the other room.
Everyone else in this movie is the straight man to Carrey’s antics. Some of the humour is reminiscent of a Zucker Brothers film (Airplane!, Top Secret!, BASEketball), down to the catchphrases. Courteney Cox (Friends) plays The Girl—yes, she ostensibly works for the Miami Dolphins and is there for a reason, but let’s be real. She’s there to be a sidekick and a love interest, and not much else. The absolute best bit in the movie is when she and Ace finally hook up. Instead of your average cinematic sex scene, this one is a montage of reaction shots from the myriad (easily a couple dozen) animals in Ace’s apartment. Clearly, Ace is as good in the sack as he is at everything else. However, if you are paying more attention to the sheet-covered bodies thrashing around than you are to the raccoon and the parrot who is looking at them upside down as if trying to figure out what these weird humans are doing, I seriously question your priorities. I strongly believe more sex scenes in movies should be done this way. Ignore the humans, show reaction shots of the pets. It’s never not funny.
Now comes the part that’s a little problematic. It turns out that Lois Einhorn is actually Ray Finkle, a disgraced kicker for the Dolphins who cracked under pressure, missed a crucial kick back in the day, and cost the Dolphins the Super Bowl. Finkle reinvented himself as Lois Einhorn so he could take elaborate revenge on the Dolphins. His specific target, apart from Snowflake, is real-life football then-superstar Dan Marino, who acquits himself perfectly well as a decent actor, as far as it’s needed for something like this. Don’t quit your day job, Dan, but you do just fine here.
Anyway, Ace figures out that Einhorn is really Finkle..after she’s made out with him once, complete with the obligatory “your gun is digging into my hip” joke. No, it turned out not to be her gun. That’s where this film, so funny in 1994, starts to lose its staying power. Sure, Crying Game jokes were very popular that year. And Carrey’s over-the-top reaction to his realization that he’s smooched a dude was apparently intended to be so outrageous that no one could possibly take it seriously. It goes from him brushing his teeth with an entire tube of toothpaste, to throwing up in the toilet, to theatrically crying in the shower. Over-the-top is right, but did they succeed in their goal of no one being able to take it seriously? Maybe in 1994, but to a modern audience, it’s a little iffy.
The first thing that begins to rankle is the repeated implication that Einhorn/Finkle kissing Ace (or Dan Marino, or half the police force, since the lieutenant has apparently made out with most of the men in her life) is a vomit-worthy experience. Even Einhorn/Finkle seems to feel that way, since smooching on someone appears to be her/his favourite form of punishment. One thing that does still impress me is the fight choreography. When Einhorn and Ace beat each other up prior to his outing her as Ray Finkle, the stunt coordinator didn’t give her any clever martial arts training or the close-quarters combat moves you typically get from women in fight scenes. She not only fights like a man, but a man who used to be a football player. It’s all big roundhouse punches and grunting, and it’s great.
People who criticize this film complain that it’s transphobic. Technically, they’re not wrong. After the fistfight, Ace rips off first Einhorn’s blouse, then her skirt (it sounds more violent when I describe it than it reads onscreen). She looks like a woman, and our hero may have been wrong—but then he turns her around, and the incriminating evidence that she never had surgically altered is poking out the back of her knickers. Yes. Ace just beat up and humiliated a trans woman. Never mind that she gave as good as she got—it’s still icky. That said, does Lois Einhorn count as a trans woman in context, beyond the technicality of it? I’m honestly not sure. For what it’s worth, no, I don’t consider myself any sort of authority on what makes or doesn’t make a trans woman. Before rewatching the film and writing this article, I did some research and talked to some people closer to the issue. I still don’t consider myself any sort of authority. In any case, she’s had top surgery and is living as a woman. But there’s never any indication that this was a lifestyle choice for Ray Finkle, or that this was his true gender identity. Lois Einhorn was a costume for Ray Finkle, a means to an end in a revenge scheme. In real life, I think that would make a difference. In a film? It’s questionable. The point of Einhorn is less that she’s trans, and more that she’s crazy. If anything, what I would find offensive on behalf of trans women is the idea that someone would use that as a costume, thus reflecting on everyone for whom it is a true identity.
These were things my D&D buddies never thought about in 1994. I would guess that a lot of people didn’t think about it then. I’m glad we’re thinking about them now. Still and all, I like Ace Ventura, despite the myriad reasons why I shouldn’t. Looking back on it and all its faults, I can’t help but feel a little bad for Jim Carrey. His film career broke with this, and then he spent years after it trying desperately to be seen as a serious actor. And it’s not like he’s not talented, because he is. It’s hard for any actor to outgrow his perceived type, even when it isn’t as iconic as this one. Did it make his career? Or did it settle him into a type that he would never manage to fully escape? Maybe it’s a little bit of both.