The Five Absolutely Essential Jim Carrey Movies

From Ace Ventura to Andy Kaufman, he’s never stopped playing characters who are defiantly their own creation. The same holds true of an actor constantly challenging himself and his audience
The Five Absolutely Essential Jim Carrey Movies

Welcome to “Five Absolutely Essentials,” an overview of the greatest comedians’ most memorable moments. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily their “best” movies — rather, these are the five films that best represent different aspects of their talent, their ambition, their persona and the artistic risks they’ve taken along the way. If you’re looking for a sense of a comic in all his or her complexity, here’s where to start. 

Is Jim Carrey serious about retiring? He sure sounded like it: While promoting last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2, he said, “I might continue down the road, but I’m taking a break. I really like my quiet life and I really love putting paint on canvas and I really love my spiritual life. I feel like, and this is something you might never hear another celebrity say as long as time exists, I have enough. I’ve done enough. I am enough.”

If it’s true that Carrey is walking away from acting, the comic (who turns 61 on Tuesday) has left behind an impressive body of work. Starting with In Living Color and then quickly jumping to hit films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask, Carrey brought a rubber-faced absurdity to mainstream film comedy, going big and getting weird, coming across like a real-life cartoon character, his body endlessly bendable and electric. But few comedic superstars have been as restless, constantly pushing himself into different, riskier terrain, challenging himself as much as he challenged his audience. Those who dismiss him as goofy or one-note are missing an unapologetic artist who thrills at taking risks. And for those who would accuse him of pretentiousness because he dared do meditative indie dramas and peculiar anti-biopics, well, the broad comedies with which he made his name contained his genius but hardly defined everything he was capable of doing.

With that in mind, how do you narrow down Carrey’s career to only five films? By acknowledging the gigantic leaps he’s made along the way — and by featuring at least one movie that pulls back the curtain to show the searching, vulnerable man behind all those laughs. This list isn’t all blockbusters, but it’s a representative sampling of the many sides Carrey has played on screen — including just being himself.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)

An ultra-stupid, mega-silly, utterly antic comedy that became a sensation, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective proved that Carrey wasn’t going to be merely a TV sketch performer or a stand-up who enjoyed doing impressions. As Ace, he channeled a maniacal intensity that was transfixing. The proudly juvenile movie embodied its star’s weirdo wavelength: It was defiantly moronic, which ended up being one of the film’s selling points.

“I knew that this movie was either a hate-it or love-it thing,” Carrey said at the time. “The only thing that bothered me about the negative reviews was that we didn’t get credit for trying something that was all the way out. No holds barred. When you get a script like Pet Detective, if you try to play it real, it would have been boring as hell. Horrifying. So, I was looking to do something that was really unacceptable.” 

He succeeded in a sense — a lot of Ace Ventura’s humor was pretty crass, even cringey — but his “unacceptable” comedy ended up making him a household name. Even so, as Carrey would demonstrate across the rest of his career, he wasn’t content with staying in that lane for too long.  

The Cable Guy (1996)

Starting with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Carrey went on a remarkable roll, starring in five straight films that each made more than $100 million at the U.S. box office. Then came this dark comedy, in which he played Chip, an odd cable guy who befriends a lonely, heartbroken dude named Steven (Matthew Broderick). At first, Chip just seems socially awkward, but soon Steven realizes this man may be seriously disturbed — and obsessed with him.

Before The Cable Guy came out, most everyone knew Carrey had been paid what was an astronomical amount at the time to star in it: $20 million. But as Judd Apatow, one of the writers brought in to work on the script, noted at the time, if Sony thought it was getting a typically freewheeling Jim Carrey vehicle, the studio was in for a surprise. As Apatow told The New York Times, “Jim said, ‘I can’t keep repeating myself. My audience is going to get bored. I can’t keep making Ace Ventura. If I don’t progress as a creative person, I’m going to go stale and the audience won’t come anyway.’”

Indeed, his performance as Chip was far darker than his earlier work, although there were some hints of it from the previous year’s Batman Forever, in which he played an unhinged Riddler. But where his earlier work was appealingly outrageous, Chip was unsettling and unlovable — a guy meant to make you recoil. The Cable Guy was hardly a bomb, but its brand of dark comedy scared off lots of folks who loved the Carrey of The Mask or Dumb and Dumber. The movie is a cult favorite now, of course — Carrey even reprised his role for a 2022 Super Bowl ad — but back then, it served as an early warning for his fans: He had no problem subverting their expectations, trusting his instincts rather than worrying about what others wanted from him.

The Truman Show (1998)

So many comedians eventually try their hand at drama, often earning Oscar nominations for their trouble, so it wasn’t surprising that Carrey would give more serious fare a shot. But what’s funny about The Truman Show is that, while it’s miles away tonally from Ace Ventura, it’s not some searing, somber affair. Sure, it’s about weighty themes — the rise of reality television, the loss of privacy, the commercialization of everything, the cheapening of real lives in the name of entertainment — but the movie is also fairly light on its feet, with Carrey’s Truman a sweet, soulful guy who isn’t aware he’s the star of a 24-hours-a-day TV program.

This was the first time Carrey worked with a major filmmaker — Peter Weir, who previously made Witness and The Mosquito Coast — and he delivered a sympathetic, amusing performance as an ordinary guy who comes to discover that his life isn’t ordinary at all. Fully confident with more substantial dramatic material, Carrey was a marvelous everyman, making Truman’s eventual escape from Seahaven especially stirring. At the start of his superstar run, Carrey risked being pigeonholed as the broad clown who made his ass talk in Ace Ventura. The Truman Show suggested there was more depth there. 

Although he won a Golden Globe, Carrey was snubbed by the Oscars. (To this day, he’s still never received an Academy Award nomination.) But the film bolstered his critical cachet. And, down the road, it inspired the thoughtful actor to reassess his life and career. “I didn’t really live Truman Show until later when I started deciding I was making these decisions of going out and doing things that aren’t expected of me,” Carrey once said. “I have had to risk losing popularity, risk losing people’s acceptance, in order to do something that’s close to my heart and that I think is meaningful.”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

There’s a story Carrey loves to tell about meeting director Michel Gondry, who had made music videos for artists like the White Stripes, Björk and Beck. His next project was going to be a bittersweet sci-fi love story, and he was ecstatic to have caught Carrey during a moment when the actor was feeling a bit down. “He looked at me over lunch,” Carrey recalled in the documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, “and he said, ‘Oh, my god, you’re so beautiful. You’re so beautiful right now. You’re so broken. I love this. Please don’t get well.’”

Carrey has made his share of non-comedies — everything from the Frank Capra-esque The Majestic to the hard-edged thriller The Number 23 — but his best dramatic work came in Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He plays Joel, a sad-sack who discovers his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has begun an unconventional procedure to have her memories of him erased. There are some great, surreal laughs in this Oscar-winning film, but Carrey isn’t the one going for jokes. Instead, his Joel is a melancholy creature trying to work through his broken heart. Gondry got his wish: Carrey has never been so shattered on screen. Underneath his monumental comic gifts is a really fragile, lovely romantic soul.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)

In recent years, Carrey has seemed to be less interested in maintaining his superstar status than he is in pursuing his muse wherever it roams. And whether it’s his intense paintings or his extreme Twitter personality, he hasn’t been concerned with being a careful, micromanaged celebrity. (He’s even been outspoken about roles he regretted because he thought they promoted violence.) All of this has only made him more fascinating of a public figure, which has never been on better display than in this unusual, utterly engrossing documentary about the making of Man on the Moon.

That terrific 1999 film, which earned Carrey another Golden Globe, saw him playing eccentric comic genius Andy Kaufman, mimicking the man’s famous routines flawlessly. But just how deep did Carrey go to become Kaufman? Jim & Andy provides the answer, with documentarian Chris Smith having access to home movies made during the production of Man on the Moon. To say the least, Carrey went to great heights to be as immersed in Kaufman’s world as possible — even if it annoyed everyone else on set. There’s method acting, and then there’s the Jim Carrey method, which sometimes involved him antagonizing cast and crew as Kaufman’s belligerent alter ego Tony Clifton.

The documentary is an unfiltered look at an utterly uncompromising actor, actively questioning whether Carrey’s aggressively provocative approach was worth it. The modern-day interviews with Carrey are just as absorbing: He’s unremorseful about his methods, and he occasionally goes on philosophical tangents that are hard to follow but never less than riveting. Of all the strange characters he’s brought to life — Ace Ventura, the Grinch, Lloyd Christmas — none of them are as arrestingly idiosyncratic as Jim Carrey himself.

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