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Crowning Jim Carrey into Hollywood Royalty  

Image Courtesy of Paramount

Sonic The Hedgehog is the film many Jim Carrey fanatics, including myself, have been quietly waiting for our entire adult life. And no, we were not preoccupied with the idea of Carrey stepping into the specific role of Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik, per say. What we were truly waiting for so long for was a movie in which Jim Carrey unabashedly reprised his comedic roots. We wanted to see the most outlandish comedian of the 90s in a rib-tickling role that evoked memories of his glory days. To see the beloved goofball we once knew as Ace and Lloyd back in full-tilt zaniness. To see the exaggerated mannerisms and ingenuous brand of slapstick he mastered in movies like The Mask and Batman Forever fully reincarnated onscreen—juvenile and childishly over-the-top as his signature style may be.

And boy, on this front, the 2020 blockbuster Sonic the Hedgehog certainly delivers! For an hour and forty minutes, we get Carrey’s maniacal laughter and explosive tantrums; we get his furrowed brows, his quizzical glares, his menacing grimaces; we get the hyperbolic shoulder shrugs and the exaggerated slumps of his torso; we get his goofy pirouettes and ecstatic swagger; we get his manic torques of the neck and his emphatically despotic broadsides; we get his joyously villainous countenances and his capriciously kinetic command of the camera’s attention: acting with total awareness of the camera and with sheer athleticism.

For swathes of Millennials, watching Jim Carrey in Sonic the Hedgehog felt like entering into a virtual time-portal to simpler cinematic times. Imbuing the mustache-twirling Dr. Robotnik with an uproarious level of spunk and panache, Carrey fills the popular villain he himself noted as being hitherto vacuously defined with the same silly quirks that once served as staples of his iconic persona. In some ways, it was a blessing that Sonic’s arch nemesis was such a thinly developed archetype. Robotnik’s hollow soul becomes an empty playground where Carrey can sharpen his comedic arsenal without shackles or supervision.

Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, giddy in an aircraft with a mischievous, shit-eating grin

Throughout the film, Carrey infuses the evil scientist with an all-star medley of his trademark hits. From ‘air’ skiing before a simulation, to miming Dick Van Dyke in a headless bit, to lampooning nefariousness with latte-lathered compliments (maniacally yelling at his assistant, in one scene: “What do I look like, an imbecile? Of course I want a latte. I LOVE THE WAY YOU MAKE THEM!”), Carrey is as ridiculous as he ever was, and yet relatable all at once.

Coloring the hammy Eggman with garish gags, Carrey enters into full ludic mode. Embodying a crazed scientist and megalomaniacal tyrant, he snaps and dances, struts and rambunctiously spazzes out so much that the speedy Sonic feels sluggish in comparison. Tapping into the same madcap energy and surrealistic darkness that defined his daring detour in The Cable Guy (a performance that a New York Times article decried as “grim” and “sour” for erasing the “boundary between anarchic humor and sociopathic malice” when it came out), Carrey unapologetically reclaims one of his most divisive roles.

But to say that Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik merely channels the vibes of Chip Douglas, the oddball electrician who dementedly installed premium channels at no cost in 1996, would be reductive. Without much of a backstory or many preset attributes, Dr. Robotnik becomes an empty vessel for a bevy of nostalgic self-references. And Carrey fills this void with so many familiar spasms and tremors it quickly became hard to keep count.

Chip Douglas pervertedly groping the wall in The Cable Guy

Suffice to say, by the time the hilarious and clever video game credit sequence for Sonic the Hedgehog rolls and somersaults onscreen, one can expect to be bewildered, dizzied, and downright exhausted. One can also expect to feel a tinge of sadness at how long we were bereft of Carrey flapping his butt cheeks and slamming his head with toilet seats. And at least for me personally, a deep sense of melancholy arose once the serotonin high of Sonic the Hedgehog’s celeritous spree wore off. I felt my mood fall captive to a swift deflation in affective buoyancy. The euphoric tumescence I had felt giggling uncontrollably during the movie flattened into neutral, drab state.

The resultant sobriety felt somber, almost oppressive. Before long, I began to meditate upon the temperamental patterns that dictate so much of the human condition. Yes, strange as it sounds, Sonic put me into a semi-hypnotic state: a blue-tinged trance. And in this reflective stance—pondering upon the emotional vacillations we all experience—I suddenly envisioned the entirety of Jim Carrey’s career splayed out before me. It wasn’t archived in a filmography as one might find on IMDb; nor was it recapitulated in a written biography. Instead, it formed a more impressionistic picture before me. At once, I felt as if I understood the ebbs and flows of his career trajectory: a career spent surfing the rhythmic tidal currents of antipodal wavelengths. A career fluctuating between the jocular and saturnine ends of the emotional spectrum.

What was unexpected though was how flimsy this thesis checked-out in regards to any sort of chronological predictability. While watching Sonic the Hedgehog, I was certain that Carrey had not acted in a comedy film since the ’90s. After, I was similarly positive that his movie career was cleanly divided into three acts: the funny movie phase, the sad movie phase, and now the budding resurgence into funny. And worried I’d gone crazy, I quickly began browsing online and found that my theory was not held in isolation.

 Dr. Robotnik preparing to dance in 2020's Sonic the Hedgehog

All over the Internet, I found articles and video interviews where critics gushed in equivalent terms about the return of Jim Carrey’s 1990s energy in Sonic the Hedgehog. From the hot takes on Letterboxd to the professional takes on Rotten Tomatoes, the consensus seemed clear: the Jim Carrey we loved back in the day was back, and back better than ever. But behind all this hoopla were some assumptions that didn’t quite check out.

The intermittently articulated but always implied element of this celebration was the suggestion that Carrey’s comedic star-power had at some point faded away, and was dissipating quietly. Even the Ringer’s extensive retrospective on Carrey’s 1994 coming-out party ends on the pretty gloomy note: “After that remarkable stretch [of the early 1990s], a descent was inevitable.” For whatever reason, we’d all written Carrey off as passé, as a star of the past.

But, upon further research, this notion quickly becomes tenuous at best. Don’t get me wrong: I too believed Jim Carrey had underwent a multiple decades long dry spell from comedy. But a quick consultation with his filmography argued otherwise. Looking at Carrey’s career, it just wasn’t possible to so cleanly synchronize the onscreen personalities he inhabited into phases that neatly compartmentalized into successive stages of emotional tonality or comedic centricity.

Sure, he definitely explored a wide array of genres and sensibilities. There were his giddy, often puerile comedies (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Dumb and Dumber To); there were his more sardonic and satirical comedies (Liar Liar, The Cable Guy, The Truman Show, Bruce Almighty, Yes Man, Me, Myself, and Irene); ther were his more rueful, wistful dramedies (The Majestic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Man on the Moon, Kidding); and there were his more macabre explorations in gothic, horror, and storybook entries (Batman Forever, The Mask, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Scrooge, The Grinch, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Number 23).

Jim Carrey eyeing a military sergeant as Dr. Robotnik

Without a doubt, Carrey wandered around the cinematic mood map: traversing various genres and ambiences. But the meandering course of his filmography is neither tonally linear nor consistent, by any stretch of reality. A nomadic movie star traipsing about, Carrey never stayed in any place for too long. He surely sauntered into melodramas and thrillers from time to time, but to say he ever left his comedic phase behind would be a mistake.

Despite our collective hunch, Carrey had never really undergone a long hiatus from helming comedies. He had not capitulated to a lugubrious sensibility nor wallowed in a suspended state of moroseness as I and so many others had instinctively hypothesized. He hadn’t even burrowed away, or charted off-course from the realm of moviemaking altogether. Steadily adrift but never astray, Carrey had been consistently cast into a bevy of characters ever since his ’90s heyday. So then, what was it about Sonic the Hedgehog that felt so fresh and vital again? Carrey had, after all, starred as a wickedly risky street magician and a baseball-bat-wielding crime-fighter as recently as 2013. In 2014, he even returned quite conspicuously to his so-called roots by doing the one thing he long swore against: appearing in a sequel.

The evidence of his persevering presence in comedy is strongly corroborated by inarguable celluloid proof. Carrey’s ostentatious villain in 2013’s Kick-Ass 2 was such a throwback he even sports a militant crew cut that gives Me, Myself, and Irene a run for its money. And in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, he parodies stunt artists in the vein of David Blaine with a performance that is as dialed up as anything he’d done in the ’90s. Even a few years before, in 2008’s Yes Man, he underwent almost identical character beats and arcs to his famous roles in Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty, playing a milquetoast square transformed and unhinged by a happenstance encounter with a supernatural intervention.

Carrey wearing camo and and a bandit / eye mask with a crew-cut haircut inKick Ass 2

Clearly, he never left the scene. Thus, there has to be some intangible facet behind or within Carrey’s portrayal of Dr. Robotnik that we all clung to but failed to explicitly call out. There must be some aspect of his performance in Sonic that struck audiences’ nerves in a way that hadn’t happened for quite some time. His gusto as the “Eggman” no doubt rekindled a widespread sentiment that many people shared: with countless claiming that he finally resuscitated his long dormant comedic bent.

So, given the flimsiness of the thesis that Jim Carrey’s career had why petered out, why did Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Robotnik feel like a bona fide renaissance? The question befuddled me so much I ultimately flipped on Hulu to give Sonic the Hedgehog a second and then third watch—cherry-picking the scenes with Jim Carrey. This is not to say that Sonic is otherwise unwatchable. For a CGI-fueled, kids’ oriented blockbuster, it wasn’t half-bad. Sure, it didn’t fully satisfy my nostalgia for Sonic as a popular Sega Genesis video game, and as a TV show that aired every morning on UPN 13. But besides the blasphemous omission of Knuckles, Jeff Fowler and company did a pretty serviceable job. James Marsden is likable; Sonic’s CGI isn’t too nauseating; and Adam Pally impressed as the doofus sidekick construing every statement given on a strictly literal level.

Even so, Sonic the Hedgehog is not the kind of cinema that warrants multiple viewings. Consequently, choosing to skip amongst Dr. Robotnik’s theatrics, I diligently studied Carrey’s expansive range of gestures, facial twitches, phonetic tics, and showy articulations. I scrutinized the byzantine set pieces, and the scenes where his singular theatrics were supplemented with expensive special effects: taking copious mental notes on his spastic contortionist antics, on the way he enunciates his words, dances with such idiosyncratic pep, and flails each limb with utmost precision.

Tiptoeing in one scene like a funambulist, and pirouetting in the next like an acrobat, Carrey’ peculiar physiological syntax began to spell out a familiar grammar. I began to see how he harnessed his chaotic gesticulations to imitate Buster Keaton, how he commandeered his frenzied footwork like Fred Astaire, and how he exploded in paroxysms of rage a la Jerry Lewis.

Jim Carrey wearing crooked sunglasses and making a funny face with an underbite

And then I began to make a ton of background connections. In one interview, I’d heard Carrey describe himself as “Fred Astaire on acid”; in another, he had quipped that he had been “psychically linked to Jerry Lewis”; in yet another profile piece, he was on record as having told Chuck Russell, the direct of Ace Ventura and The Mask, that there was a method to his madness: “You know, sometimes if I can just imagine it I can make my body do it.”

And then it hit me. What Sonic the Hedgehog set the stage for was not an aged comedian tapping into atavistic charms. To the contrary, it set a stage worthy of a seasoned veteran who was eager to remind the world what they had been missing. Jim Carrey never went anywhere. He was simply whetting his aggressively versatile comedic chops—chalked full of wit and Method Actor intensity—in the margins: waiting for the zeitgeist to take heed. Even in smaller bit parts like in The Bad Batch, or on new platforms as with the poignant TV series Kidding, he was at work: honing his smart-aleck demeanor, his crabby disposition, and his outrageous predilections.

Ultimately, what Sonic’s Dr. Robotnik delivers to us is a composite. A composite of all the notes he’d refined and mastered over his career. A composite of all the icons and comedians and famous Hollywood stuntman he’d punctiliously analyzed and emulated with the same commitment he put into his early celebrity impressions—making sure he got every detail down perfectly.

Carrey grinning maniacally with a yellow fedora and behind his iconic green mask

Dating back to his formative years on In Living Color, Carrey has long been feted for the remarkable plasticity of his malleable face. From producers to directors, the entire industry has spent decades in awe of his ductile cheekbones, his pliant brow, his rubber lips, and his calisthenic jaw. Little did we know that this pliability would also become the central motif of his shapeshifting career.

We often like to acclaim actors that display incredible range. But hardly anyone in the movies is as protean as Carrey. Whether cast in a gaudy children’s flick, an absurdist ditty, a rueful drama, or a box-office winner of juvenilia and ribaldry—whether playing a gay criminal, a brooding detective, or a schizophrenic cop—whether costumed as the eccentric Count Olaf, Scrooge, Andy Kaufman, or the Grinch—Jim Carrey has proven that he is a virtuoso of mutability.

There is a scene in The Mask that offers the perfect encapsulation of his nonpareil talents. In the scene, Carrey twirls and whirls through a series of burlesque impersonations. He becomes a Spanish bullfighter, a Soviet ballet dancer, an outlaw with a revolver, and finally the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley (one of his go-to impressions). Perhaps one day we will look back at this standout sequence and realize that it works as a symbolic microcosm of a most singular career. Perhaps, one day we will call Jim Carrey the king of impersonations. Or, if that title is too oversaturated with worthy contenders, perhaps we can call him the king of becoming: for if Carrey is unequaled in one thing, it is in respect to his capacity to transubstantiate himself into nearly anything.

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Written by Paul Keelan

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