For those who came of age and became cognizant of pop culture in the 1990s, Jim Carrey was likely a touchstone of adolescent entertainment. He harnessed the rambunctiousness of a pubescent boy and turned it into a paradigm of juvenile delinquency. A wild child who talked out of his butt, with those bugged-out eyes, elastic face, flailing gangly limbs and that impossibly ductile frame, he did for gross slapstick what George Carlin did for dirty words.
Particularly in his iconic mid-’90s roles, Carrey treats his body like a man-sized rag doll, using his wiry features and face to project emotions words can only insinuate. As if hopped-up on so many cans of Surge, Carrey acts like a boy in a man’s body, and yet he’s hardly masculine. While his contemporary male comedians (Adam Sandler, shudder) flaunted their manhood, endorsing frat-bro behavior. Carrey, on the other hand, seems more like the guy the frat bros beat up. That vulnerable, almost emasculated quality is evident in a surprisingly large number of his roles. Maybe that’s why kids love him so much: he channels their innocence—and their inner Energizer Bunny—without being intimidating.
For reasons unknown, “Dumb and Dumber To” is now a real thing. It reunites Carrey with Jeff Daniels, who probably needs a break from all the oppressive Mamet-speak of “The Newsroom.” Now in his 50s, Carrey remains a bastion of articulate immaturity, and he’s now returning to the unrepentant style of stupidity that made him famous 20 years ago. Upon re-watching his entire oeuvre, it became clear that he tends to rehash similar personas in his lesser roles; but there are a few genuine moments of profundity in his long, strange career, which makes us wish the Canadian funny man was offered more serious roles. We present our ranking of Jim Carrey’s feature film performances.
Keep in mind that we’re ranking his performances, not the films themselves, although it’s pretty obvious when Carrey’s desperately trying to salvage bad material. “Dumn and Dumber To” opens this Friday.
37. “All in Good Taste” (made in 1981, released in 1983)
As an exercise in poor taste, “All in Good Taste” isn’t even bad enough to be fun. If you’re willing to drop 300 bucks to get the VHS on Amazon, this soft-core throwback can be all yours. Or you can just watch it piecemeal online. Carrey has a minute role as a mute naked camera man named Ralph, which isn’t at all memorable except for the fact that it’s Jim Carrey in a soft-core flick. All the gratuitous nudity (gratui-tits? sorry) can’t veil the movie’s crippling flaws, which are too many to list.
36. “The Sex and Violence Family Hour” (1983)
Among other roles, Carrey plays a “coked-out mega millionaire who’s so paranoid he has armed guards checking out his armed guards.” A pseudo-movie comprised of unmemorable skits, though it does have a great title. It’s worth mentioning, however, that you can already discern in Carrey’s caricatures the twitchy physical humor that would define his ’90s style.
35. “Finders Keepers” (1984)
Michael O’Keefe, an Oscar-winner who fell off the map, stars as a con man on the run from a woman’s roller derby team after he accidentally steals a dead man’s stolen money. Carrey pops up in a couple lame scenes as the inane dead man, who isn’t so dead (spoiler). He’s just an idiot. The part amounts to zilch, but he also doesn’t do anything irritating either, so there’s that.
34. “Copper Mountain” (1983)
A Lifetime-lite flick about some people who do some stuff at a ski resort. It does present Carrey’s first real role, however. It’s amazing how his innocent dunce persona is already so clear, rife with recognizable tics and that oafishly de trop humor. You can see shades of “The Cable Guy” and Lloyd Christmas here.
33. “Earth Girls Are Easy” (1988)
Carrey, playing a singing alien named Wiploc, is hidden under a slab of makeup and hair. He kinda looks like a poor man’s Grinch. He’s upstaged by an equally unrecognizable Jeff Goldblum, playing an alien of a different color (they’re like a hairy pack of crayons).
32. “Rubberface” (1983)
1983 was a busy year for the ascending funny man, and this is the movie many people consider his first. It’s not, but it does exhibit more Carrey-isms than the previous drudge on his resume, especially the flailing, gangly limbs. A scene in which he goes through a coterie of impersonations while trying on hats is reason enough to check this out. It also offers an apt mantra for Carrey’s career: “If all you do is goof around, people will say, ‘This guy’s a goof, he doesn’t have a brain.'”
31. “Once Bitten” (1985)
A pre-“Twilight” vampire rom-com! With dancing! Carrey displays better moves on the dance floor in latter movies, but there’s something affable and endearing about his goofy nice-guy persona here. In a scene that prophesies the iconic (among millennials) “I Put a Spell on You” scene in “Hocus Pocus,” a vampire and Carrey’s lady friend have a dance-fight to the tune of Maria Vidal’s “Hands Off.” Nothing special, but not offensively bad, either. And Carrey turns the volume way down.
30. “Anchorman 2” (2013)
Carrey’s polite Canadian newscaster is one of the less-funny cameos in the long, cameo-saturated fight scene. Highlights include Kanye, Will Smith, Liam Neeson, and pretty much everyone who’s ever lived.
29. “The Number 23” (2007)
Joel Schumacher, who directed Carrey in that masterpiece of subversive wit “Batman Forever,” proves that the duo truly have chemistry. The chemistry, however, has similar properties as mustard gas. “The Number 23” is almost offensively bad. It tries to parade its preposterousness as profundity, and apparently assumes no one has seen “Fight Club” or any number of thrillers that rely on the split-personality trope. Give Carrey credit for trying to do something dark; take all that credit and more away for doing it in an awful movie.
28. “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” (1995)
As much fun as a urinary tract infection and just as detrimental to one’s physical and mental well-being. It’s even grosser and more offensive than its predecessor, which is already pretty gross and offensive; it takes aim at the whole of humanity and basically pisses all over everyone, R Kelly-style. If you have a pulse, or have ever had a pulse, or are related to someone who once had a pulse, this movie—”movie”—will find a way to insult you. Carrey tries hard, you try harder to forget.
27. “Pink Cadillac” (1989)
He’s only in 40 seconds of the movie, but Carrey plays an Elvis impersonator, foreshadowing his (much better) Elvis via Andy Kauffman in “Man on the Moon.”
26. “High Strung” (1991)
His final role before the breakout year of 1994 (in the early ’90s he was mostly doing “In Living Color,” which is fantastic and you should go watch it right now), Carrey plays Death. He kills a fly with his mind, acts nutty, and has the following exchange: “You’re weird.” “I’m Death.” The subsequent ads would flaunt Carrey as the focal point of the movie, but he’s only in it at the very end. It feels like an SNL skit.
25. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” (2011)
Recycling bits from all his previous family-friendly roles, Carrey plays a divorced dad consumed by his job. He gets some penguins and becomes less of a jerk. He’s clearly having fun here, even if the audience isn’t.
24. “Simon Birch” (1998)
Carrey is the narrator of this by-the-numbers coming-of-age story. He does a competent job in an otherwise unmemorable film. You’ll probably forget you saw this not long after ejecting the disc from your DVD player.
23. “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000)
After the nuanced beauty of “The Truman Show” and “Man on the Moon,” Carrey reverted to his more-is-better style for this horrid bastardization of Dr. Seuss’ beloved book. Lacking the lonely menace of Boris Karloff (who voiced the Grinch in the iconic cartoon adaptation), Carrey jettisons all traces of humility in a performance so far over the top, it makes “Dumb and Dumber” look tranquil. Perhaps compensating for Ron Howard’s lack of directorial personality, he gnashes his teeth and swells his belly and waves his hairy green sausage fingers around, trying to keep the kiddies in the audience amused. He was the natural choice for the part, but Howard clearly let Carrey do whatever he wanted, which is how bad performances are made. He has a few moments, but they’re few and far apart. When The Grinch’s heart finally grows, you almost wish he’d just drop dead of coronary arrest already.
22. “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” (1994)
Just because it’s the movie that made Carrey a star doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s not—it’s really, really not. And Carrey revels in all of his worst proclivities here, as he yells and screams and exaggerates EVERY SINGGGGGLEEEEEE WORD. Far more offensive than you probably remember (sexist, homophobic, racist, anti-dolphin, it runs the entire gamut), “Ace Ventura” adheres to a more-is-better schematic with unflinching conviction, and Carrey, all wound up with no place to go, really just annoys the fuck out of you.
21. “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986)
The idea of Jim Carrey and Nicolas Cage as doo-wop singers? Yes, please. The actual execution? Eh… Carrey gets bonus points just for not sounding like Nic Cage, who gives one of his strangest, most confusing performances, sounding like a greaser addicted to helium.
20. “Dumb and Dumber” (1994)
Another one of Carrey’s three break-out hits from the Year of Tarantino, “Dumb and Dumber” pairs Carrey with Jeff Daniels, ineffably engendering one of the all-time most beloved bromances in American cinema. Their chemistry is undeniably potent, and they play off each other so well. Devoid of any and all traces of competence, they do stupid better than anyone else. But Carrey is one-uped by Daniels, whose sense of timing is just as sharp, but who varies the volume (if not the stupidity) of his delivery enough to keep things off-balance. As idiotic and asinine as they are, Carrey and Daniels are inexplicably likable, even though the movie enveloping them has all the dignity of a decapitated parakeet.
19. “The Majestic” (2001)
If “The Grinch” is an example of why he needs to have someone keep an eye on him and keep him in check, then “The Majestic” is an example of why Jim Carrey still needs an outlet for his pent-up mania. This stultifying performance is Carrey on Ritalin, and it’s hard to take him seriously when he’s drowning in Capra-esque nostalgia and syrupy sentimentality. That courtroom speech about the first amendment is painful, the antipode to his pre-“Fight Club” self-beating in “Liar Liar.” He does what he can with the trite Oscar bait, but this marks the first entry in a decade-plus of mostly mediocre material undermining Carrey’s charisma.
18. “Yes Man” (2008)
“Liar Liar”-lite, but not funny.
17. “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” (2013)
Tremendously disappointing, Carrey’s return to dark humor feels somewhat castrated. As a shock-tactic street magician, he performs increasingly insane routines, such as lying on hot coals and boring into his own head with a power drill, with demented sincerity. He’s once again let down by mediocre material, though.
16. “Kick-Ass 2” (2013)
Ignore how repulsive and tonally inane this ill-conceived sequel is. Carrey’s the best part. Too bad he got more attention for withdrawing support from this uber-violent flick than for his actual performance, because he’s not at all bad, and one can ascertain a certain bit of glee in the way he mashes bad guys (“Try to have fun, otherwise, what’s the point?”). But—surprise!—the movie lets him down. The idea of Jim Carrey playing a crazy superhero is delicious. Too bad this is the result.
15. “My, Myself & Irene” (2000)
Carrey once again slips into the dual-personality groove he did in “The Mask” and “Liar Liar,” with diminishing results. He’s not bad—technically proficient, fully immersed in both the nice guy and the dick roles—but we’ve seen this before. The mean half of his personality is part “The Cable Guy” reprisal, part Clint Eastwood impersonation, while the nice guy is just a rehash of his previous nice guy roles.
14. “Fun With Dick and Jane” (2005)
Carrey and Tea Leoni have really good chemistry, but they’re again let down by lame material, a reoccurring theme in Carrey’s 2000s output. He does, however, get to yell about non-fat muffins.
13. “Horton Hears a Who” (2008)
Innocent and child-like, and with a calmness that he usually forgoes entirely, Carrey inhabits the altruistic elephant admirably.
12. “Batman Forever” (1995)
After the trifecta of insanity that was 1994, Carrey, champion of the box office, landed a role in Joel Schumacher’s hotly-anticipated Batman flick. The movie turned out to be a homoerotic fever dream (not that homoerotic fever dreams are always innately bad, but in this particular case they are), but Carrey delivered the goods as Edward Nigma, aka The Riddler. He’s oddly quiet at times before ripping into long tirades, and he clearly relishes lines like, “Spank me!” (Personal anecdote: I wrote Carrey a fan letter when I was 6-years-old, having just seen “Batman Forever,” and he responded with a signed photo that said, “Spank you very much!”) Ironically, though, Tommy Lee Jones, progenitor of the Not Amused meme and world champion of stoic Texan lawmen, is way more flamboyant than Carrey. Maybe Jones lost the ability to smile because of this movie?
11. “The Dead Pool” (1988)
Clint Eastood’s final entry in his angry-white-man-with-a-gun Dirty Harry series, “The Dead Pool” is best remembered for early appearances by Carrey and Liam Neeson (unfortunately no one kidnaps his wife or daughter here). Carrey goes wild doing a bad Axel Rose impersonation, but the bad impersonation is actually the point. He’s a doped-up rock star shooting a music video that rips off “The Exorcist”; this is the first sign of the darker, meaner tendencies percolating behind those crazy eyes.
10. “Bruce Almighty” (2003)
Carrey earned another fat paycheck to play a man who inherits the powers of Morgan Freeman. One of the highest grossing comedies of all times, “Bruce Almighty” is another underwhelming project bolstered by an endearing lead performance. Carrey’s at the top of his comedic game, but he’s let down by family-friendly, diluted material. Still, there’s no faulting him here—he delivers.
9. “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” (2004)
As the nefarious Count Olaf and his myriad disguises, Carrey has ample room to show off his comedic chops. Uneven but impressive in range, his various getups are wicked fun. The movie is underrated for sure, and Carrey could ignite a city with his energy.
8. “The Mask” (1994)
Hitting all the right notes, as well as a few extraneous ones, Carrey’s a blast as the green-faced lunatic. Helmed by the guy who gave us “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” the movie is easily the best of Carrey’s three smash hits in 1994. The secret to Stanley Ipkiss is in the way Carrey creates the jarring distinction between the nice guy routine he’d been doing for a full decade by this point and the outrageous green guy lurking within Stanley. As the lowly banker, Carrey is nice and pathetic, the kind of guy who lets you cut him in the coffee shop line when you’re in a hurry. As the Mask, he’s a goddamn hurricane. He gives the appearance of chaotic lunacy, but he has tight control of his motions, his deliveries, his Playdoh face. His gift for impersonations comes in handy, and he gets to show off his dance moves (and, oddly enough, his singing voice) as he does some kind of amalgam of Salsa and disco with a conga line of cops. It’s also a better dog movie than “Ace Ventura.” (Carrey might even play the dog, I’m not sure.)
7. “I Love You, Phillip Morris” (2009)
Carrey is endlessly cute as a raging homosexual who discovers that the gay life is expensive. (His words, not mine.) He commits fraud, gets locked up for 25 years, and falls in love with Ewan McGregor. The two leads have resounding chemistry, though McGregor feels more natural in the role. As precise as Carrey is, it often feels like he’s acting. Regardless, he finds the humanity lurking beneath his broad character, and hones an intense, longing stare when he first meets Phillip, going a solid minute without blinking. It’s an impressive turn despite its apparent artifice.
6. “A Christmas Carol” (2009)
As a coterie of eclectic, eccentric animated characters, Carrey does his best voice-acting to date. Paired brilliantly with Gary Oldman (a match made in hysterical heaven), he creates and sustains characters with calculated inflections, accents, and idiosyncratic rhythm. The movie itself may be an overwrought exercise in 3D wankery, but Carrey’s scolding, melancholic Scrooge isn’t a caricature; he’s consumed by genuine sorrow. Owen Gleiberman aptly called Carrey “reflexively ironic,” which often makes the funny man feel disingenuous when he miscalculates, but here he grapples with his penchant for snark and plums the doldrums of the iconic character. The movie is too in love with its own animated excess, but Carrey is maybe the best Scrooge since Alastair Sims, since Bill Murray technically played Frank Cross, not Scrooge. (Fun fact: Sims reprised the role, but as a cartoon, in an Oscar-winning short in 1971, which is worth checking out.)
5. “The Cable Guy” (1996)
Erroneously labeled a “comedy,” Ben Stiller’s black-hearted satire of mass media consumption left critics cold. It pulled in an acceptable $102 million at the international box office ($60 million domestically), though it quickly faded from the public consciousness. But it’s more of a horror movie that just happens to be funny, and audiences didn’t know how to react. Carrey notoriously landed the fattest paycheck ever for his turn as the title character, and that unfortunately left a bitter taste on moviegoers’ tongues. Their ire is unearned: Carrey gives the best performance of his career up to this point as Chip, a socially-awkward and possibly sociopathic cable installer. Playing a villainous nut-job with a lisp is risky, but Stiller and Carrey quickly establish that the lisp isn’t played for giggles, as Chip grows frustrated and embarrassed at his inability to say “perfectionist.” The deeper into the film you get, the darker the material becomes until you’re swimming in a sea of oil with only Carrey’s charisma as a guiding light, and he certainly isn’t guiding you anywhere pleasant. He makes you so fucking uncomfortable with his hysterics delivered in whispers and shrugs, and you wait for the impending explosion to come. But whereas “The Mask” has you rooting for the hurricane, “The Cable Guy” makes you fear it. The key to Carrey’s brilliance here is how Stiller sticks him in a real world that doesn’t want him. In his sillier projects, Carrey’s insanity, and sometimes inanity is just accepted or ignored by the world. Not so here: the scene in which Carrey plays basketball with essential everyman Matthew Broderick (impeccably cast) and a thin Jack Black is tremendously upsetting because we witness a bunch of sweaty middle-aged men make fun of Chip. Chip is awkward, but up till now he’s done nothing sinister. He just wants to hang out. Once it becomes clear that he’s delusional and the world around him has cast him off, Carrey ceases to be funny and becomes scary, and more than a little sad.
4. “Liar Liar” (1998)
Carrey settles into middle age (or rather the role of a middle-aged character) with surprising grace, after spending the first 14 years of his career playing perpetual children. He shows a level of restraint as the “nice guy,” meaning a guy who deftly feigns capriciousness to avoid awkward confrontations, that eluded him in previous roles. The whole movie is really just a platform for Carrey to show off, and it’s pretty glorious stuff. As with “The Mask,” Carrey melds the jovial nice guy facade and his brand of whacky slapstick comedy, but here the nice guy is dragged along, kicking and screaming, as the physical comedian goes wild. The mind-body disconnect Carrey suggests in the “pen is blue” scene is staggering, equal parts Ash in “The Evil Dead II” and Stanley Ipkiss. And the way he chews into, “I’m kicking my ass, do you mind?” is wonderful. Though “Liar Liar” may be a throwaway mainstream comedy—far better than its peers for sure but trite nonetheless—Carrey is great. The way he despairingly sinks into himself when he has his realization, “I’m a bad father,” is more moving than it has any right to be, and yet wreathing this epiphany hat is a string of gags that rank among his funniest. The roasting of the committee scene, in which Carrey gives in to his inability to lie with increasingly savory results, bears the full spectrum of low-brow comedy. Carrey writhes around, points his skinny arms like daggers at the targets of his jokes, unleashes torrents of insults without slipping or stuttering (yet he doesn’t abandon the impression of a man wrought with nervousness), and, when he’s won, he finally collapses in a way that seemingly defies the human body’s normal malleability. As a technical comedian Carrey has rarely been better, and mingling the funny stuff with the emotional stuff, however shallow as it may be, presents a whole new range of possibilities. He never seems like he’s trying, which is a sign of a comedian at the top of his game.
3. “The Truman Show” (1998) directed by Peter Weir
Carrey had never before worked with a director of Weir’s calibre. For the first time, Carrey’s jocular demeanor and gee-golly histrionics suggest a type of malaise exclusive to the mass-media-consuming America. With every “Good morning!” and mile-wide smile, Carrey at once caters to the masses huddled in their suburban living rooms gathered ’round boxy tube televisions while slyly, subtlety sticking the knife in. “The Truman Show” is just as subversive as “The Cable Guy,” but whereas Stiller’s film proudly wears its intentions on its sleeve, Weir’s darker undercurrents are buried like underground water mains coursing the green lawns and balmy skies of Seahaven. It rewards repeated viewings—you can see the difference between the various ways Truman feigns happiness, and the slight variations in his wink-wink-smile before and after he catches on. The temptation for cuteness must have been incredibly high for all involved, and for a while it seems like that might be the route they take. But the 1950s-esque complacency of Seahaven in the film’s first couple reels is necessary to exhume the phoniness as the film develops. Rare is tear-jerker that earns its tears, but Carrey and Weir deserve every accommodation for their work in “The Truman Show.”
2. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2003) directed by Michael Gondry
The 2000s were a pretty rough decade for Jim Carrey, but there was a lone bright moment in those ten years of mediocrity. The most amazing thing about Jim Carrey’s performance is how Kate Winslet completely overshadows him, and he lets her. Let’s not kid ourselves: Kate Winslet is in the very upper echelon of modern actresses, and Jim Carrey is…well, Jim Carrey. Winslet can hold her own against virtually anybody, but had Carrey turned it up to 11, the eccentricity of Clementine wouldn’t work. And it’s not just a matter of being quieter, since that didn’t work out so well in “The Majestic”; he’s genuinely subtle in his depiction of depression. You can feel that gray plaid fog, as Steinbeck once called it, rolling through the catacombs of his head as he whispers, “Why do I fall in love with every girl who shows me the least bit of attention?” Even in “The Truman Show” Carrey’s charisma is magnetic and his gestures histrionic, and rightfully so. The role called for it, and he answers with relish. But only in “Eternal Sunshine” does he allow all that mania to fizzle out, and what’s left behind is sad, lonely, and desperate.
1. “Man on the Moon” (1999) directed by Milos Forman
From the director of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” this Andy Kauffman biopic is pretty disappointing—emotionally-stunted and hollow, as phony as the faux-fight Kauffman staged on Letterman. Jim Carrey, however, is transcendent. He treats Kauffman with hallowed earnestness, disappearing so deeply into the dark, enigmatic role that one fears he won’t be able to find his way out. The culmination of his myriad talents, this is the first and possibly only time when Carrey’s mere presence isn’t a distraction. You don’t see Carrey as Kauffman, you see Kauffman. Rewatching the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Carrey playing the seminal comedian, a man so uncomfortable in his own skin he spends his entire life being other people. (Think of him as a sort of more acerbic Peter Sellers.) Kauffman, and Carrey’s iteration of Kauffman, is a sad, disconsolate, acidulous asshole, but a brilliant asshole. Carrey aces each facet of Kauffman’s astonishingly varied, though sadly short-lived career: the sleazy sordid lounge entertainer Tony Clifton; the stuttering, nervous wreck on SNL; the thickly-accented Latka on “Taxi” (Danny Devito, Kauffman’s “Taxi” co-star, appears here as one of the comedian’s few friends); the inter-gender wrestling champion. But, most impressively, Carrey gets Kauffman himself, a man few people ever knew. He isn’t imitating, but rather inhabiting. It seems like playing a real person finally gave him a sort of schematic to follow, or a main rhythm from which he’s free to improvise while still staying within established boundaries. The film may not bother exploring Kauffman as a person, treating him as more of a character to display on screen, but Carrey taps into the ineffable tragedy of a lonely artist. Since Kauffman’s genius went unappreciated in his time, it’s apt that Carrey failed to get an Oscar nod for his best performance.