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Smart and Smarter | The Nation

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Smart and Smarter

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In Me, Myself & Irene, Jim Carrey bullies a series of small children, gets into senseless fights (on the grounds that "he started it") and reverts hungrily to breast-feeding. This is how he behaves as a tough guy. As a mild-mannered pushover--the other half of his dual role--he shoots a cow execution-style.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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We're told that the "gentle" Jim (here playing a Rhode Island state trooper named Charlie) has suppressed his emotions for so long that his anger has taken on a name of its own--Hank--and can now commandeer his body. But to judge from the evidence before us, this hidden self, when he emerges, is just a big baby. It's the nice guy who's dangerous.

This story, like Hank himself, only recently crawled into the light. The script for Me, Myself & Irene, by Peter Farrelly, Mike Cerrone and Bobby Farrelly, was written in 1990 and left to mature in a drawer. There it lay while the Farrelly brothers made their first picture with Carrey, the 1994 hit Dumb and Dumber--a movie that was pretty smart about subjects such as the injuries of class, and that was pretty thoroughly trashed by people who felt too superior to bother seeing it. Following Dumb and Dumber came Kingpin and then, in 1998, There's Something About Mary, after which even the deepest drawer in the Farrellys' house was free to pop open.

The Farrellys and Cerrone may have updated their old script, but the movie comes before us still clinging to the virtues (and in some cases faults) of youth. It's a friendly, gangly picture that seems tremendously impressed to find itself on the screen. At times, you expect it to look back over its shoulder, as if it suspected the audience might be watching another film standing right behind. Like many an ingenuous young man, Me, Myself & Irene believes that fresh-faced young women possess an innate power that allows them to save any man who's lucky enough to draw near. Hence the presence of Renée Zellweger, than whose face none is fresher. Her powers do not, however, overrule the laws of corny chase sequences, with which the movie, like many a young man, is in love. There's some tedious last-reel rescuing, the responsibility for which falls to Carrey.

But that's as much bumptiousness as you'll need to excuse. The rest of Me, Myself & Irene is all goofy good cheer and open-air improbability, set along the Rhode Island coast, on the wooded roads of New York State and across the ever-changing landscape of Carrey's face.

You should know that Charlie, who is Carrey's primary persona, loses his pert blond wife at the start of the movie but as recompense gains three wonderful sons, who somehow happen to be huge and black. The boys, who are 18 at the time of the main action and rather more sexually advanced than their father, are played by Anthony Anderson, Mongo Brownlee and Jerod Mixon as sweet-natured, dozens-playing whiz-kids. ("Man, you so dumb, you think 'polypeptide' is a toothpaste!") Eventually, the sons discover a surrogate brother in an albino called Whitey (Michael Bowman), thereby scrambling beyond repair our national obsession with melanin.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Everything's cozy and "normal" at first--Charlie zooming around on his state trooper's motorbike during working hours, and at night getting suffocated between his sons on the living-room sofa, as the whole family enjoys a Chris Rock special on TV. Then comes the day when Charlie will be suffocated no more. What the sons do to him puppyishly, the rest of the world does with malice and contempt, knowing Charlie to be too skinny, too squeezable, to fight back. He'll just smile and try to fold himself up even smaller, no matter the insult--until the day someone casually cuts ahead of him in the supermarket line.

How can I describe the transformation of Carrey's face at this moment, as he changes from Charlie to Hank? How...how can I... can the...describe...the deform moment... Carrey changes from Charlie to Hank? In close-up, in a single take, with an acceleration of twitches followed by a sudden softening into tranquillity, Carrey reproduces John Barrymore's legendary metamorphosis in plain sight in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the added subtlety of regressing not to an apelike state but to childhood.

We come to the issue of certain biological preoccupations, which are known to characterize the Farrellys' humor. In There's Something About Mary, the protagonist was emotionally stuck in adolescence, with memorably goopy consequences; in this movie, Hank takes us all the way back to the age of toilet training. When the filmmakers contrive to throw him together with Irene (Zellweger)--a blameless young woman, pursued by killers from the Environmental Protection Agency--Hank mouths all manner of adult-sounding come-ons. (In the manner of hero-worshiping little boys, he mimics the language of movie detectives, using a voice he's copied from Clint Eastwood.) But despite the bravado, Hank's interest in Irene hasn't quite reached full genital development. He, and the movie, fixate on life's squishier side.

So much has been written about Carrey's talent that I needn't pile on more praise. We all know about the amazing physical distortions--the way the upper lip will roll up like a windowshade, while the lower jaw teeters like a broken sill--which are closer in spirit to Tex Avery's metaphoric transformations of the body than to Jerry Lewis's emotive spasms. It's enough to note here that Carrey has become more confident when just saying the lines. In Dumb and Dumber, given a rare quiet moment, he oversold his confession of longings; but when he speaks of Charlie's love for his sons in Me, Myself & Irene, the words come out simply, and the feeling improbably rings true.

So, leaving Carrey to fend for himself, I will applaud Zellweger. Like Cameron Diaz before her, she has stepped into a role that would earn most actresses the Good Sport Award; and like Diaz, she has come out wearing a crown of gold and three sharpshooter's ribbons. I figure the Farrellys must do something on the set to encourage such transcendence; but it's Zellweger who did the transcending and should get the credit. In films such as Jerry Maguire, The Whole Wide World and A Price Above Rubies, she has projected a mixture of vulnerability and impatience, self-protectiveness and a self-affirming sexuality. Here, she relies on common sense and her pipsqueak voice to defend herself against Charlie, when he very kindly and sweetly makes her feel like trash. Hank's easier to deal with. When he comes on too strong, she just kicks him in the face.

You should know that coincidence led me to see Me, Myself & Irene very soon after watching Shaft. Comparisons were unavoidable, and justified, too. Although Shaft bears the marks of successive authors and multiple production clashes, it's unmistakably the work of the small-minded John Singleton, whose directorial approach is that of the schoolyard bully. Your reaction to his new film--a cringe or a cheer--depends entirely on whether you want to see this particular patsy beaten up, and whether you can ignore the hamfistedness with which the beating is accomplished. What a relief it was to enter the Farrellys' world and see bullies exposed for what they are! What a pleasure to discover affection, silliness, comradery and an overall generosity of spirit. At the end, the Farrelly brothers go so far as to thank you for your patronage. (I paraphrase, for clarity's sake.) It's exactly the right attitude--and I thank them back.

From the Aardman animation team, creators of the "Wallace & Gromit" shorts, comes the delightful new feature film Chicken Run. It's The Great Escape with poultry as the prisoners of war and a couple of rural English chicken farmers as the jackbooted Nazis. Vegetarian propaganda, aimed at the kiddie audience? Of course. But Chicken Run is also, and most impressively, an ideal marriage of style and subject matter.

In a world increasingly dominated by computer graphics, Aardman continues to practice clay-model animation. It's an insanely artisanal technique, whose only advantage is to make you feel you're sitting on the floor of the world's best playroom, surrounded by toys you could actually pick up. In other words, Chicken Run was made by English eccentrics, whose obsolete and troublesome craft demands continual ingenuity in the use of small objects. This means the Aardman animators are a lot like the protagonists of this film: four-fingered, harmonica-mouthed chickens, who scrape together eggbeaters, spoons, bits of elastic and old crates, and conspire to use them to escape from captivity.

Moviegoers who travel in the company of small children should be warned that one of the Aardman chickens meets a very common yet untimely end. ("Is she going to die?" asked the tyke in the row behind me. "Is she going to die?" Then: "Did she die?") Everyone else, be advised that the leader of the chickens has the voice of Julia Sawalha (Absolutely Fabulous), while the all-too-cocky American rooster who drops in on the coop is played on the soundtrack by Mel Gibson. When these two characters--Ginger and Rocky--get caught in the chicken-pie machine of Mrs. Tweedy (voice of Miranda Richardson), the result is one of the funniest, most exciting sequences you're likely to see all year.

Peter Lord and Nick Park dreamed up the story for Chicken Run, directed the film and produced it with David Sproxton. Karey Kirkpatrick wrote the screenplay, and Loyd Price supervised the animation. Cheers to them all.

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