In "Liar, Liar," Jim Carrey's pants are certainly on fire -- and they'll burn all the way to the bank.
The movie is far funnier than it is good, and at the same time it's slightly more respectable than the wanton stupidity of the Silly Putty-faced comic's earlier hits, like the Ace Ventura movies or "Dumb and Dumber." It manages to climb that rung up from guilty pleasure to simple pleasure. You can actually admit to other grown-ups you like it.
Basically, the film consists of a mild setup that liberates Carrey to go nuts, to sail away on improvisations so astonishing they get you into the far realms of oxygen debt; then, when you've endured enough pain, it returns to its tone of labored cuteness.
In other words, they've thought long and hard about not thinking long and hard -- that's how simple it is.
Carrey is presented as Fletcher Reede, a typically oleaginous member of the lawyer clan who, in his quest for partnership, has developed a style of prevarication as smooth and practiced as Beethoven's piano tinkling. He used to lie to live, but untruth-telling has been so ingrained in him he now lives to lie and, worse, loves to lie. Fibs fall from his prehensile lips like rose petals preceding a processional walk. He smiles and lies, he exhales fiction, he even dreams dishonestly. That big grin plastered across his face is a lie: He's far happier. Every word he says is a lie, including the "the" and the "and." The victims of his falsehoods are routinely clients and professional associates and adversaries, but of late he's lost all capacity to make distinctions, and they've come to include his cute ex-wife (Moira Tierney) and his too-cute 8-year-old son Max (Justin Cooper).
So Max, disappointed for the nth time by one of dad's greasy, spade-toothed fables, makes a birthday wish: that the big guy endure 24 hours physically incapable of telling a lie.
This feeble mechanism -- never justified and the only whiff of fantasy in the movie -- sets the rest of the story in motion, which is mainly Carrey possessed by a truth-telling demon that orders him to abjure falsehood, damn the consequences.
In the patently phony world of L.A. law, this is bracing stuff, particularly as it plays out in a workplace lubricated with a WD-40 of falsehood.
And truth, somehow, is always funny: "Hi," he says blithely to an underling, "you're so unimportant I don't have to remember your name." To a secretary he croons, "That dress is so ugly it detracts attention from your ugly hair."
But the best of these ordeals-by-honesty is a deconstruction of the American male breast fetish that should be entered in a time capsule for future anthropologists. In an elevator a buxom young woman turns to him and says with a zero brain-activity smile, "Oh, people are so nice here." "That's because your breasts are so big," he tells her (the stone truth, by the way) and then proceeds to devolve before her (and our) very eyes through the stages of breast-worship, from adult male to adolescent boy to goo-goo-baby-wants-his-milk. Hilarious stuff.
I used to think the key Carrey question was "What planet is he from?" No more. Now it's "Of which miracle substance is he created?" or possibly, "From which top-secret R-and-D lab has he escaped?" For surely no flesh and no bone structure could melt and reform with such liquid suppleness; no body could multiply its own joints in such profusion; no face could recombine into such a vast array of confabulations, seemingly unaffected by laws of gravity, physics, biology or anatomy. He is a walking special effect; he could have probably played the bad guy in "Terminator II" without computer animation. He represents the future in only one word: plastics.
The director, Tom Shadyac, and the writers Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur, are astute enough to realize that more plot is less Carrey and conceive their highest professional obligation as a mandate to keep it from getting in his way. For the record, it chronicles a double crisis -- he's representing an unworthy woman (Jennifer Tilly, irritating as usual) in a divorce case and must lie to win; meanwhile his ex-wife and son are on the verge of moving to Boston with her current suitor, the ultra bland Cary Elwes. You won't remember either crisis seven seconds after you emerge into the night.
But not only does that not matter, it is in fact the point. Carrey, unique among American stars, doesn't need story or writing to delight. He needs only room, and "Liar, Liar" gives him plenty.
Starring Jim Carrey
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Released by Universal
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 3/21/97