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Too Much of a Crude Thing

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Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Steve Oedekerk

With Jim Carrey, Ian McNeice, Simon Callow, Sophie Okonedo, and Maynard Eziashi

When Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was released last year, the clip circulated to the review shows featured Jim Carrey bent over at the waist proffering his clothed behind. Using his hands he opened and closed his butt cheeks, turning them into a mouth, and thus the talking ass moved from the playgrounds to the cinema screens. Knowing critics would hate the flick, Carrey made a preemptive strike: Siskel and Ebert complaining on At the Movies about the clip couldn't help but come across as stuffy and uptight. After all, what further insights can critical analysis bring to a talking ass? Rendering the critic's job ridiculous also made questions of acting moot. A performance is often judged by its level of difficulty, its uniqueness: nobody else could have pulled off Linda Hunt's character in The Year of Living Dangerously, Daniel Day-Lewis's in My Left Foot, or Tom Hanks's in Forrest Gump. Yet ironically, according to this commonplace, Carrey should be an Oscar winner--his physical contortions are beyond even Daniel Day-Lewis's. Nobody else could have starred in Ace Ventura or The Mask.

Jim Carrey is a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, a loose-limbed, rubbery phenom. The fluidity of his impersonations and transformations makes him the most brilliant physical comedian to come down the pike since the manic Jerry Lewis. Physically he's a throwback to a slapstick style that's supposedly dead; verbally he perfectly suits the current Age of Irony. To this mix he adds a sophomoric, lowbrow humor, broadening his appeal (late-night television comedy has proved the magical power of the words "penis" and "ass" in pimping for laughs). By mixing modes, by uniting the contemporary with the traditional, he's generated a persona that not only combines Dick Van Dyke with Bill Murray but appeals to everyone who laughs at bathroom jokes.

Like the Marx Brothers' personas, Ace Ventura is the id unleashed. If, as J.D. Salinger writes in The Catcher in the Rye, adulthood is a fall off a cliff into phoniness, Ace has never fallen: he's a perpetual child. And he shares a child's capacity for cruelty, which is really a capacity for honesty. When Ace is told not to tread on sacred ground in this sequel to Pet Detective, he responds just the way a kid would: by dancing goofily on the forbidden ground behind the chieftain's (aka teacher's) back. Ace's enjoyment--and ours--comes from this defiance of authority, this liberating refusal to play by the rules.

In Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls Ace travels to Africa to prevent tribal warfare by rescuing a stolen sacred bat. The man sent to hire Ace (Ian McNeice) finds him in a Buddhist monastery, meditating and wearing a pompous, ineffable expression: the scene ends with Ace demanding his guru's medallion of spiritual accomplishment. It's Carrey's particular genius to uncover feelings viewers may not have analyzed in themselves and bring them out into the open--here he satirizes the supposed superiority of the spiritually obsessed. He makes us laugh without fully understanding why.

Unfortunately, we only glimpse that genius in When Nature Calls. The film suffers from sequel-itis: magnifying the elements that made the original successful. The movie opens with Ace scaling a mountain in a sequence parodying a scene from Sylvester Stallone's Cliffhanger, outsize budget and all. The original Pet Detective opened with a similar gag, but then Ace pretended to be high above the ground. Here the joke is bigger, more obvious, and not as funny. Carrey's acting is broader but with less reason and to less effect. Ace always seems to be freaking out in When Nature Calls. When Ace infiltrated an asylum in Pet Detective his craziness was part of the effort to fit into a "society." In the sequel he's insane for no reason, and what at first seems original eventually becomes wearying. After all, which is funnier: a normal guy who spazzes out or a spaz who spazzes out?

Ace is funniest when the other characters on-screen don't know how to react to him. Is he insulting them? Is he joking? Or is he just eccentric and stupid? And at the same time that we identify with Ace's bewildered victims, we also identify with the bewildering Ace, which makes for a complex, effective comic interaction. In Pet Detective, when Ace delivered a package, in the midst of his hyped-up behavior he was still making semireasonable requests--"Please sign here. And here. And here. We'll send the rest of the forms in the mail"--that almost legitimized him. The victim of these requests, not knowing he was being made fun of, signed dutifully. But too often in When Nature Calls the victims have no such doubts, responding to Ace with harrumphs and reddened faces. When Ace first sits down in front of a slide projector with his head in the center of the light beam, the other characters are caught off balance, unsure whether Ace did it intentionally. Watching them being toyed with, squirming and trying to size Ace up, is funnier than seeing them rear back angrily and exploding, as they do when the gag continues with Ace's dick jokes. Ace's victims are victims no more--they can dismiss him because he's just a jerk trying to piss them off. We can dismiss him too.

At his best, Carrey discerns what the audience is feeling by analyzing what he's feeling, then bringing it into the open before viewers have processed their gut reactions: we respond to his jokes with the laughter of recognition. Too often When Nature Calls is so obvious that there's nothing to recognize. When Ace mocks a pompous boob by calling him the Monopoly guy, there's nothing witty about it: the actor has been chosen and made up to look exactly like the Monopoly guy, right down to the monocle, so we place him before Ace does.

In any case, it's no sweat to make fun of a cartoon. The Marx Brothers' films set in the real world--the opera, high society, a university, a vacation resort--wreaked havoc on it. When they went to the circus, they just blended in and disappeared. When Ace leaves Florida it's not for the real Africa but the Africa of old movies, a place where he can mock big-game hunters in Teddy Roosevelt garb. And appropriately the sequel is set on a bigger continent than the one in Pet Detective. When Nature Calls outdoes its predecessor in nearly every way: bigger cast, bigger animals, bigger costumes, bigger special effects, bigger budget, bigger promotional campaign, even bigger acting. The only things that have gotten smaller are the laughs. This comedy is a triple layer of frosting and no cake.

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