Some videos are almost too embarrassing to rent. You tiptoe into the local Rental Hut just before it closes, scan the shelf for that special tape, huddle it up to the counter, and hope that your kid’s English teacher doesn’t materialize in line behind you holding The Secret Garden. Then you dash home, pull the shades, disconnect the phone, and settle in for a truly taboo video experience.
You think I’m talking about triple-X porn? Heck, no, I’m talking about Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, a comedy so reviled by movie critics and tastemakers that its box office success was taken as the latest omen of national decay. But that’s the miracle of home video: It allows us to live comfortably within our cultural hypocrisies. We can proudly see The Age of Innocence at the multiplex, go home to watch Friday the 13th Part VIII, and it’s okay. We don’t have to be ashamed. In fact, we don’t even have to be ashamed if we do it the other way around.
If you are on the uptight side, though, know that Ace Ventura plays better at home. (Rabid fans will also be pleased to learn that the tape has one minute of extra footage in which star Jim Carrey spoofs Siegfried and Roy.) The film’s humor is pitched at that part of the brain that’s 5 years old and still gets off on li’l fuzzy animals, fart jokes, and braying, rubber-faced clowns. Literally or metaphorically, this movie is best watched in jammies.
What keeps Ace Ventura aloft for much of its running time — and unless you are 5, it will eventually cross your stupidity threshold — is Carrey, formerly best known as the White Guy on TV’s In Living Color. Some comics are touched with genius, some have hard-won skill, some have good jokes. Carrey has the fearlessness of the genuinely weird. You can see it in the opening scene, in which he goes undercover as a UPS-type courier and blithely trashes the package he’s supposed to be delivering; it’s as though that particular disguise was chosen for its destructo potential.
Perhaps he figures that dementia is the only sane response to years of struggling in bad TV shows like The Duck Factory and worse movies like Once Bitten. Maybe four years of In Living Color has brought out his penchant for chipper, cartoony aggression. Whatever the case, Carrey’s something to see. As an oddball gumshoe chasing the kidnappers of the Miami Dolphins’ mascot, he contorts his face and makes silly noises; he goes through one scene chewing sesame seeds in the most disgusting manner imaginable and another scene pretending to talk through his, uh, hindquarters. Vulgar infantilism? Sure, but let’s face it: Oscar piety to the contrary, that’s what Hollywood tends to do best these days.
And Carrey’s blunderbuss approach holds the promise of delirious pop liberation, because you really have no idea what he’ll do next. Movies rarely give us performances so unfettered by propriety or notions of how stars are “supposed” to behave: Carrey’s in a ballpark with Mickey Rooney as Puck in the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Nicolas Cage in 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss (and like those two, he often topples into mere obnoxiousness).
Eventually, and unfortunately, the star runs out of things to do, and the movie runs out of helium like the B-level matinee it was meant to be all along. There’s a love interest (Courteney Cox), but romance makes less sense here than in a Jerry Lewis flick: Carrey is too absorbed in his private mental jungle gym to pay attention. The plot devolves from the entertainingly strange (Ace seeks advice from a mad-professor Greenpeace activist who lives below a punk club) to the just plain bizarre (the climax suggests The Crying Game as rewritten by preadolescent boys). Sean Young, apparently nearing the Matlock-special-guest stage of her career, plays a villainous police lieutenant, and it’s a mark of how badly Ace Ventura goes wrong that you end up feeling sorry for her.
Yet it’s easy to see why the movie’s success blindsided critics and Hollywood executives. Inanity is hard to quantify, especially when it’s as inspired as Ace Ventura’s first hour. The little kids understand, though. If you’re that worried about being embarrassed, maybe you should just find one to send to the video store. C+