Saturday 25 June 2011

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)


Character comedy is one of the quickest ways to make someone a star, mainly for those who come from America’s premier comedy showcase, Saturday Night Live. Both Mike Myers and Will Ferrell have each made a sound career of bringing whatever characters they think of to life on the big screen. Though never an official part of the SNL cast, in 1994, Jim Carrey launched himself into the stratosphere with his comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, directed by Tom Shadyac. Essentially a vehicle for Carrey to show off his particular brand of insane, limb-flailing comedy skills, his career took off instantly and he’s never looked back since.

When the Miami Dolphins’ team mascot, a dolphin named Snowflake, is stolen just weeks before Superbowl, the management call in a pet detective – the incredibly bizarre Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey). As Ace follows the few clues he has to find out who took the mascot and why, matters escalate as the Dolphins’ Head of Operation ends up dead and their star quarterback is kidnapped.

What do you say about something like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? Treating it as a film is almost taking it too seriously. It’s really just a collection of scenes strung together by a narrative thread of questionable strength for the purposes of making someone a star. It would be regarded as a vanity project if it weren’t for the fact that, at the time, no one really knew who Jim Carrey was. In fact, many thought this was his first film, despite previous roles in The Dead Pool, Once Bitten, Peggy Sue Got Married and Earth Girls Are Easy. Given that Carrey is the central… well, really the only focus of the movie, Shadyac’s direction is entirely geared towards giving him the stage. There’s little in the way of real direction throughout the film. It’s mainly about pointing the camera at its star and trying to keep up. There are moments of humour found outside of Carrey’s performance, like the use of the song from The Crying Game to amusing effect, but then there is some rather shameless product placement (Isotoners anyone?). In all, Ace Ventura could probably have been directed by anyone, so long as they knew their place. This wasn’t Carrey’s first film, but everyone knew that it was his film.

I hesitate to use phrases like “comedy tour de force”, mainly because they seem like they were invented solely to get some critic’s name on the poster, but it kind of applies here. Not to say that this stems from the unbridled popularity of the character (most loved him, many didn’t), but it’s more that Ace Ventura is a complete comedy package. Everything about him is geared to be funny, and replicated to some degree by those without a personality of their own (like me in high school). He looks like he dresses in the dark, his hair seems to be what happens when the brain explodes, his expressions are peculiar, his behaviour is insane, and his dialogue is a constant stream of blather… and Carrey commits to absolutely every aspect. He holds back nothing, constantly going for the joke, be it a well-timed one-liner or a maelstrom of physical insanity. Not only is this an incredibly impressive performance, it’s an incredibly brave one. If Ace Ventura hadn’t been the hit that it was, Jim Carrey could have been forever relegated to the straight-to-video world, alongside Pauly Shore. However, the enormous commercial success of Ace Ventura, plus the release of The Mask and Dumb & Dumber in that same year, elevated Carrey to instant star status and he’s been there ever since. So not only is he very talented, he’s also incredibly smart, and maybe a bit lucky, too.

There should be some concern over a degree of homophobia or transphobia from the film, though. Whilst I doubt that it’s ever meant to be mean-spirited or judgemental of the transgender community, the reaction of the lead character, and many others later on, to the news of one person’s transgender status is a tad severe, even if it’s just playing the whole thing for laughs. As I said, I don’t think that anyone involved in the film meant any harm. As a sneaky foreshadowing of this plot point, there are clues dotted around that are clearly coming from a juvenile mindset. That particular character’s office has two apples and a banana strategically placed on their desk, for God’s sake. That’s stuff that kids do. It’s immature certainly, but it isn’t intended to offend.

Still, it’s no fun to feel laughed at for something so personal. The fact that it’s so easily dismissed as “a bit of harmless fun” should maybe be the real cause for concern. For someone to feel legitimately victimised on some level is bad enough; worse when such feelings are shrugged off as being too sensitive or touchy on the subject; worse still when people feel they can’t say anything for fear of offending someone. This is the prickly world of comedy… it’s all subjective. For my part, these considerations never even occurred to me when I first saw this film back in the day, but then again, I’m not 11 anymore. It didn’t ruin things for me, but it did give me pause.

Whilst the movie perhaps works best in the 11 to 25 age range (I laughed way more then than I did now), it’s still got some laughs to be had. The story is a pretty standard mystery shtick, but that’s not really what Ace Ventura is about. It’s all about seeing what kind of cartoonish anarchy Jim Carrey can create in any given situation, and that’s just exactly how it should be taken – as a live action cartoon. The character may grate on some, but there’s no denying Carrey’s skill in character immersion or the returns of his first big hit. It’s fluff, but it’s still occasionally funny fluff.

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