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‘The Mask’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1994

"The Mask" taps Jim Carrey's antic energy and Play-Doh pliability, fortifies these with animated alchemy and, alakazam, the star is transformed into Gumby on paint fumes. Effectively, the comic actor becomes one with a Tex Avery-type 'toon in a series of sequences that are literally jaw-dropping. But these loopy-doopy interludes aside, there's little else to recommend this slight comic variation on "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Mike Werb's screenplay -- just a rickety framework for Carrey's consummate clowning -- lacks a propelling plot and has zip in terms of secondary character development. The hero's dog, Milo (played by a wag named Max), evolves with more complexity than either Carrey's love interest (bombshell Cameron Diaz) or his sidekick (Richard Jeni). The picture is then hobbled by a tiresome subplot about a pair of shady mobsters who are useful only as Carrey's comic foils.

The TV comedian, who attained movie star status as "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," plays Stanley Ipkiss, a bashful bank clerk whose life is a series of humiliations. After an especially painful experience -- he's bounced from the trendy Coco Bongo nightclub -- Stanley's loaner car breaks down on a lonely bridge. And in a page torn from "It's a Wonderful Life," he is about to jump from the rail when he notices a body and dives to the rescue. Alas, it's only flotsam: some plastic bags, some driftwood and ... what's this?

The body's "head," an ancient mask carved from greenish wood, is about to float away when Stanley, now under its spell, fishes it from the river and takes it home. His savvy pooch regards it suspiciously, but Stanley is not so wily. When he gingerly touches the mask to his face, it instantly affixes itself like some Kermit-colored fungus. A tornado-like transformation follows, from which the devil-may-care Mask emerges.

An eye-boinging apparition with a big green grin, The Mask owes as much to Jack Nicholson's Joker in "Batman" as he does to the 'toonsmiths at Warner Bros. He's not quite as mean-spirited, but he is capable of exacting vengeance from those who have wronged the nebbishy Stanley. In a moment of Midas Muffler magic he equips a car mechanic with his very own tailpipe. A marvelous dancer and swoon-inducing kisser, he finds he is a babe magnet despite his dyspeptic physiognomy and his towering white teeth.

To that end, the movie includes a series of song-and-dance scenes, such as a dizzy big-band number with the Coco Bongo's songbird (Diaz) and a SWAT team conga line to The Mask's rendition of Desi Arnaz's hit "Cuban Pete." The music is as irrepressibly silly as Carrey himself, but neither can mask the sheer vacuity of this spectacle, which really doesn't have any more material than a Tex Avery cartoon.

Director Charles Russell of "Nightmare on Elm Street 3" has the sense to cut Carrey loose and allow him to riff, but woe unto less self-sufficient members of the cast such as Peter Riegert, shooting blanks as a cop, and Peter Greene as a psychotic gangster who briefly and awkwardly wears the mask. He learns, of course, that it isn't easy being green, even though Carrey sure makes it look that way.

"The Mask" is rated PG-13 for cartoon violence.

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