THE MASK: Hold On To Your Lugnuts

The Mask (1994) – Directed by Chuck Russell – Starring Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Riegert, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck, Richard Jeni, and Ben Stein.

I have a hard time judging comedies, and I don’t think I’m alone on this. Whenever you see those “Top 100 Movies of All-Time” lists, the few comedies that are included tend to be ancient comedies, made closer to the invention of motion pictures than anything currently playing at the multiplex. Part of it for me, though, is that I stop finding movies funny rather quickly – I can remember seeing There’s Something About Mary in the theaters and laughing from start-to-finish. The last time I watched it, I barely chuckled.

I mention all of this because it applies directly to THE MASK, the second film (after Ace Ventura) in the rise of Jim Carrey. I remember seeing the film in the theater and laughing a bunch of times and just generally thinking it was pretty great, but when I watched it for the first time in years last night, I don’t think I did more than smile a few times.

Comedies thus get judged in two different ways: the first watch and then every other watch. For me to like a comedy the first time, simply making me laugh is enough, but after I’ve seen your jokes and laughed at your pratfalls, I need to be able to actually like the characters and the story. It’s why I hold a comedy like Forgetting Sarah Marshall in higher regard than There’s Something About Mary. The latter made me laugh much, much harder that first time out, but the former is a much better story, with more interesting characters, and even if the humor will always be less bombastic, the ability of the story to trump that keeps me interested. It’s why I think Bill Murray is the greatest comedic actor of all time – the guy isn’t just funny (no one has better timing), he’s a genuinely great actor.

I was worried about what my reaction to THE MASK was going to be. As much as I liked it then, I’ve long since cooled on Jim Carrey’s comedic act. I’m much more interested in watching him in movies where he acts as opposed to movies where he has to be funny, especially if that funny involves exactly the kind of exaggerated physical humor that THE MASK relies on.

The bad news is that, as I mentioned, I only chuckled a few times. The good news is that after a rocky start, THE MASK turns into a compelling movie. While much of Carrey’s, “Ssssssssssmoking!” act has not aged well, the overtly cartoonish nature of the Mask character (he’s clearly a Tex Avery character come to life) is balanced nicely by the milquetoast quality of Stanley Ipkiss. The narrative is simple and concise, and Carrey is supported by solid acting from Peter Riegert, Cameron Diaz, and Richard Jeni.

Like many superhero stories, THE MASK is a story of an ordinary guy given an extraordinary gift, but unlike most superhero stories, THE MASK is both a comedy and not really all that superheroic. The mask itself is a piece of green wood that when attached to a user brings out a bit of their wild side. For Stanley, this quiet, woman-shy guy becomes a green-faced mix of Tex Avery cartoons and Cab Calloway. He becomes the aggressor instead of the stepped upon, and the Mask strips him on any real sense of morality.

It makes for a fascinating watch, and it imbues all of the action in this story with a real darkness. Yeah, it’s funny that mechanics step on Stanley, so the Mask goes back and steps on them, and the emphasis is on the joke of the Mask showing up and yelling, “Hold on to your lugnuts!,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the Mask shoving a tailpipe up each of their respective buttholes is more than a bit sadistic.

The special effects still hold up exceedingly well. It’s pretty impressive that THE MASK was made for $28 million and still looks this amazingly good. I love the outlandish use of color, the film’s willingness to break out in a musical numbers, and just the sheer fun of the film. It’s not a great movie, but it is a fun one.

While Carrey rightly gets the lion’s share of the credit for the film, there are other fine performances here, too, that help to ground the film. THE MASK was Cameron Diaz’s big break and she’s fantastic. I remember watching the film when it was released and wanting to see more of her (and not just because she’s attractive), and was genuinely, pleasantly surprised when she started appearing in other movies.

The real secondary star of THE MASK, however is Peter Riegert, who plays a cop investigating the Mask’s activities. He delivers a wonderfully deadpanned performance, adding his own dry sense of humor that grounds all the zaniness around him.

Well, I should say that the real, real secondary star of THE MASK is Stanley’s dog Milo, who’s clearly the smartest person in the whole movie. He’s loyal and cute, and clever enough that after Stanley tells him to stay in the car with a handcuffed Riegert, Milo unlocks the car door, opens it, and heads inside the nightclub to help Stanley. He ends up getting to wear the Mask, too, for a bit, and it’s still the funniest scene in the movie.

THE MASK does a really nice job of mixing up the humor with enough pathos to keep the film grounded. It’s a fun movie, and one of the best examples of seeing a live-action cartoon. I don’t like the movie as much as I once did but it’s still a good movie. It’s really quite amazing they never made a real sequel to the film (just the Jamie Kennedy cash and grab), but maybe that’s for the best. The Mask can be worn by anyone and so the story can move in all sorts of directions, but it takes a unique talent like Carrey to make it work. Other comedians could do it, but they’d be very different films, and one wonders if audiences would take to seeing someone new strap on the Mask for an adventure.

In the bonus features, someone involved in the production makes the point that the original ending was having Richard Jeni’s character jump into the water after Carrey and Diaz discard it, but that it didn’t test well with audiences, so they shot a new ending with the dog retrieving it. And now, almost 20 years on, we’re probably closer to seeing a MASK reboot than we are to seeing a relaunch.

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