Previous to this week, I think it might actually have been about twenty years since I had last seen The Mask. I don’t remember exactly when or where I saw it; it doesn’t stick out as a seminal viewing. For a few years, The Mask seemed to be one of those movies that were always just on. And then it disappeared. 1994 was a big year for Jim Carrey: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective came out in February, The Mask in July, and December saw Dumb & Dumber. Twenty years removed, it’s obvious the other two quickly overshadowed The Mask. Not so much critically, somehow it fared best, but Ace Ventura and Dumb & Dumber had much more staying power amongst popular opinion.
The Mask was a flash-in-the-pan, just barely peeping its head out of Jim Carrey’s short-lived but phenomenally popular and prolific rubberface period (roughly six films in 3 years). This brief moment seems to have preserved an idea in the public consciousness of The Mask as a good film. Everyone’s favorite listicle generator, Buzzfeed, made a list this week of the 20 ways The Mask is a “modern masterpiece.” Unsurprisingly, it’s a nostalgia-ridden list of a bunch of ways that don’t really make it a masterpiece of any kind (i.e. the villain has an earring or the henchmen has a ponytail). A further analysis of online discourse reveals the film has accrued two decades worth of cred because people remember it as being “unique” or uniquely tied to their experience of the movies…or because the 90s…right guys!?
The Mask truly did have some tricks, though. It was the debut of model-cum-actress (and then cum actress) Cameron Diaz, and viewers and critics alike took kindly to her. Director Charles Russell, who seemed hired strictly for his experiences in the horror/thriller genre (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, The Blob), was hell bent on successfully integrating computer graphics in a freshly comedic context. But basically, The Mask came at a time when the public was enamored with Carrey’s talent. It was part of year that solidified Jim Carrey as a prominent physical comedian of the decade. What we really talk about when we talk about The Mask is Jim Carrey.
Outside of the aforementioned, the film doesn’t boast much and actually shares quite a bit in common with one or both of Carrey’s other 1994 features. It’s a PG-13 film featuring cheesy villains, poor production quality, a woman that seduces Carrey in the first act (that is romantically entagled with the villain), and a slogan the film could be marketed on. Like “Allllllrriigghhttyy then!” or here, “Scchhmmoookkiinnn!” which you might not remember is the film’s closing phrase. Similar to many films from Carrey’s career, The Mask is a true vehicle for him. It’s centered on a dominant premise that writes itself. Basically, the film could have been much worse and still attained the same positive reputation. Watching The Mask detached from its initial buzz, in a post-rubberface era, is to witness a remarkable case of Hollywood marketing machinations.
In her ’94 review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin posits, “The Mask tells a story that wouldn't be worth telling without tricks” and it “goes absolutely dead when not following its hero's insane outbursts.” It’s a testament to the studio that the film has just enough of both to divert attention away from the bald spots. In fact, Carrey is just short of performing a one-man show. Comically enough, Gene Siskel’s review on Siskel & Ebert (in a clip that has added entertainment after seeing the new documentary on Ebert, Life Itself) praised The Mask’s supporting cast. He specifically compliments Diaz, who’s basically a cardboard cutout being shuffled across the screen by stagehands, and…THE DOG! The non-human dog.
One of the small revelations I had while revisiting The Mask was determining this as the first of an unofficial trilogy wherein Jim Carrey gets special powers that both burden him in some aspects of life but also allow him to live out certain fantasies (along with Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty), fantasies of revenge associated with nerd identity - sleeping with beautiful women, beating up bullies, being a talented entertainer, standing up to the boss at his boring job. The Mask is nice enough to lend TV’s Ben Stein to explain this to us all in simple, digestible psychoanalytical terms – “we all wear masks, metaphorically speaking, we suppress the id, our darkest desires, and adopt a more socially acceptable image.” More than Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty, both about Carrey’s character becoming a better father, The Mask is about Carrey’s Stanley Ipkiss achieving a sense of cool. Hence the tagline: From Zero To Hero.
Some of the cool moments Ipkiss is afforded via the mask wield the biggest laughs. His transformations usually manifest as some staple character or trope from the pop culture lexicon. Thus, like True Lies of the same year, some meta-fictional tangents breath much needed life into any otherwise ordinary feature. Best of all is a gag that goes from playing on the Western to ribbing awards ceremonies. The most charming thing about the film is that it seems to want to be a Hollywood B-noir throwback; Ebert called Ipkiss “a cross between the Joker and Aladdin's genie, with elements of the Shadow.” Why these identities are a part of Ipkiss’ darkest desires is a bit dubious, however, The Mask succeeds in achieving this aesthetic momentarily, (particularly during the second act’s cops & robbers scene) but the final product isn't self aware enough and slips back into straight-to-video-esque cheese. And like many 90s comedies, the ending seems like a contractual engagement with drama that, really, couldn't be less interesting.
Overall, the film has a handful of bright ideas. I appreciate how it maintains a mystery as to what exactly the mask does. The script doesn't set unnecessary parameters as to what one can or cannot do with the mask. Yes, we know it elicits the wearer’s darkest desires, but there is some flexibility as to the physical limitations it lends. But bright spots like this are all too inconsistent throughout and The Mask becomes too draped in the shtick of its time and to reliant on Jim Carrey’s antics to be anything more than novelty.
These popular film recollections, or birthdays--if you want, give us an interesting opportunity to both appraise a pop cultural moment that birthed them, and to decentralize nostalgia from our viewing experience. For The Mask, nostalgia itself seems to emerge as a key ingredient of the time, specifically nostalgia for pop culture of yesteryear. Whether it’s classic cartoons, postwar Hollywood pulp adaptations, or any of the various movie tropes Ipkiss appropriates with the mask. Unfortunately, The Mask is merely a conduit for then-popular nostalgia and foregoes doing anything substantially interesting with its meta-fiction besides wrap it around Jim Carrey's strange jaw gyrations.