As the fuzzy Scroogian sourpuss of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jim Carrey doesn't just wear Rick Baker's sickly green, evil-sprite makeup; he merges with it. He molds the creased feline cheeks, lunar-beastie hair, and crooked layers of yellow teeth to his own grin and scowl, to every last flicker and eruption of his mischievously divided, now-I'm-calm/ now-I'm-a-raving-sarcastic-PSYCH-o! personality.
The Grinch, who lives in a giant cave tucked atop the curvy elf-shoe peak of Mount Crumpit, likes to fancy himself a guy who hates everything, especially Christmas. But he's a worrywart megalomaniac, too neurotic to sustain his loner's rage for more than a momentary spasm or two. He's got an answering machine that threatens violence to anyone who leaves a message and then politely invites callers to push star ''if you want to fax.'' Even the angry echo of his voice won't cooperate with him. Carrey, thrusting his lower lip into a pout of magnificently mocking self-pity, speaks in a basso, rapid-fire, vaguely British growl that makes him sound like a deranged James Stewart fused with Lionel Barrymore. He plays the Grinch as an overgrown kid who never got his candy and is now going to make the world pay for it. The Grinch sits around his mad-scientist lair, munching on glass, his beetle brows locked into a sneer as he tries to dream up ways of ruining everyone else's pleasure. Meanness fills him with dirty high spirits, but he's so suspicious of anything that feels good that he compulsively sabotages even his own malevolent glee. Attempting to drown out the happy holiday sounds of the Whos down in Whoville, the Grinch sticks his head, which resembles a giant coiffed gourd, between a huge pair of crashing cymbals, and Carrey's face, under all that rubbery padding, registers something between agony and joy. Later, after being informed that he's won a Christmas contest, he panics and asks, ''What if it's a cruel prank? What if it's a cash bar!?'' Carrey makes the Grinch a slobby, self-loathing elitist ruled by the secret fear that he's always being left out of things.
For anyone raised on the beloved 1966 Christmas television special, it's difficult to greet the prospect of a live-action Grinch with anything but skepticism. Ron Howard's phantasmagorical rim-shot fairy tale is easy enough to watch, but it's not exactly what I would call a magical entertainment. The movie, with its curved Seussian sets, which have none of the loopy, gravity-be-damned elegance of Theodor S. Geisel's drawings, lacks the funky, engaging simplicity of Chuck Jones' animated TV special (or the even more minimalist 1957 Seuss book). Howard's version is noisier, buzzier, rowdier an overstuffed Christmas stocking of a movie, stretched to the bursting point with optical tricks, media-age references, and lavish destructive jokes, not to mention an ungainly ersatz-tearjerker back story that explains just how the Grinch, as a plug-ugly grade-school orphan, turned into such a rotten egg.
From our first glimpse of Whoville, with its Gaudi-gone-Candyland abodes, its bustling crowds of extras who look like taller, cat-faced munchkins with pointier noses, we never quite escape the feeling that we're on a clunky, static movie set, piled high with enough powdery fake snow to suggest the world's largest paperweight. Baker's makeup works splendidly on Carrey; no such luck with the actors playing the Whos, most of whom, like poor Molly Shannon, get lost beneath their latex snouts. About the only ones we have to fasten onto are Jeffrey Tambor as the vain, fatuous mayor May Who, Christine Baranski as the lacquered designer snob Martha May Whovier (the Grinch's once and forever love), and 10-year-old Taylor Momsen, sporting a mouse's buck teeth, as little Cindy Lou Who, who deduces early on too early, in fact that beneath the Grinch's rasp and gleam there's a sentimental softie dying to get out.
It takes a while for Carrey to rev up, to lash the entire overscaled production to his snappish, quicksilver, channel-surfing rhythms. The newly padded-out story feels, well... padded, and the movie doesn't truly kick in until the Grinch shows up in Whoville after being chosen, at Cindy Lou's behest, as the Holiday Cheermeister. Needless to say, the reward turns into a disaster, as Carrey, leading a conga line and giving the mayor a ''fabulous'' shear job, unleashes his singular brand of anarchy. Howard deflates any goody-goody piety by building a conventional, toys-are-us cynicism about Christmas into the bustling mini-world of Whoville. He's trying for the sort of goosey domestic surrealism that Tim Burton brought to Edward Scissorhands, but the tone would have worked better if we'd been more involved with the Whos as characters. Make no mistake, though: This is Jim Carrey's show, and he just about wraps the movie around his spindly green middle finger.
He's done it once or twice before, of course. The Grinch often feels like a final-encore, banana-split version of Carrey the blockbuster comedian, since the movie, pitched to little kids, is a testament to how safe, even sweet, his ''satanic'' brand of improv tomfoolery has become. If anything, the real surprise here is how affecting he makes the Grinch's ultimate big-hearted turnaround, as Carrey the actor sneaks up on Carrey the wild-man dervish. In whichever mode, he carreys the movie. B-