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MASKED MANIC

Jim Carrey, the double-jointed, rubber-faced dervish of In Living Color and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, seems like the last guy in the world who needs his act powered up by the special-effects department. But that's what happens in The Mask. Industrial Light & Magic, the people who put the giddy-up in Jurassic Park's dinosaurs and the gleam in E.T.'s eye, have tacked $8 million worth of computer-generated animation onto Carrey's contortions. The result is--literally--some of the most eye-popping stuff you'll see on the big screen all summer.

But before falling head over heels for movies as mere technical constructions, it's helpful to note that the animators' wizardry serves a pungent comedy that already knows how to stand on its own two feet.

Originally, this familiar comic-book tale of a dorky bank teller transformed by the powers of an ancient mask into an avenging angel was conceived as a straight horror flick dripping with blood and guts. But when director Charles Russell came aboard, things changed. The man who pumped new life into the Nightmare on Elm Street series by giving master slasher Freddy Krueger a sense of humor, Russell plays The Mask's dark plot for laughs, and he provides the manic Carrey with a vehicle he can drive as recklessly as he wants. Some may dismiss Carrey as the second coming of Jerry Lewis. But in this film, at least, he shows as much energy and invention as Robin Williams at full throttle, and he uses his whole body better. (Little matter, then, that his next film is entitled Dumb and Dumber.)

Here the emergent comedian's real-life conniptions may be enhanced with cartoon antics--a la Roger Rabbit by way of Beetlejuice--but that is simply added value, icing on the cake.

Carrey's squinty nerd/hero is named Stanley Ipkiss, and he has a couple of things in common with the mild-mannered book editor Jack Nicholson plays in another summer movie, Wolf. Berated by his landlady, ripped off by auto mechanics, even dissed by his dog Milo, Stanley's one of life's losers in a metropolis called Edge City. But when he stumbles across a wooden mask with some mojo in it, he transforms himself into a suave, toothsome whirlwind who sweeps women off their feet, swats bad guys like flies and, suddenly gotten up in a green mask and a yellow zoot suit, brings down the house at Edge City's swank Coco Bongo Club with his elastic dance numbers. Prankster, seducer and rake, the new, green-masked Stanley is, of course, the flowering of all his repressed desires--although it probably wouldn't do to consult Dr. Freud at any great length.

Watching all the slapstick and the goofiness, you wonder how Carrey survived the filming. Whether he's flinging blond starlet Cameron Diaz (who plays the obligatory songbird Tina Carlyle) around the room, dodging bullets fired by bad guy Peter Greene and his henchmen or leaping through plate-glass windows, he's the most physical performer imaginable. If you're in the mood for mimickry, you get that, too--swift torrents of Edward G. Robinson and Dirty Harry, Jack Palance and Jimmy Cagney. The only things Carrey can't do for himself, it seems, are bug his eyes two feet out of their sockets and flop his tongue into a panting heap on the table in front of him. Those are the things Industrial Light & Magic does for him.

The movie's ornate song-and-dance numbers, aided and abetted by special effects, suggest not only the bygone gloss of MGM musicals but also the biting satire of, say, Brazil. The best of them, in which a gun battle turns into a Busby Berkeley extravaganza, Stanley/Mask transmogrifies into a maraca-shaking hoofer called Cuban Pete and an entire police department is suddenly compelled to join a conga line, is one of the funniest spectacles I've seen at the movies in a long time.

The Mask is not quite a kids' movie--although kids are bound to love its comic anarchy the way they loved the surprise hit Ace Ventura. It's not quite for grown-ups, either--there's far too much sheer silliness and raw fantasy for that. Suffice it to say, perhaps, that the post-adolescent in all of us might be drawn to its dazzling inventiveness and surreal caricature. The engine that drives it is Jim Carrey, and even those who see him as the class clown set loose in Hollywood may have to acknowledge his supercharged talents this time around.

 
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