Liar Liar

(Tom Shadyac, USA, 1997)


Many of the greatest screen comedians, including Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis, have had immense problems fitting their personae within the tidy lineaments of conventional movie plots. This is especially so if their humour is based on such confronting personal qualities as egocentricity, narcissism, tastelessness and the hysterical demolition of whatever situation they happen to be placed within.

Jim Carrey is the latest comic genius to face this bind. As a performer Carrey is superb, in his timing, inventiveness and above all the playful relationship to his own body. As a fictional character, however, his loudly obnoxious air renders him a dubious subject for a sunny, feel-good Hollywood movie.

So, as for many magnificently grating, on-edge comedians before him, Carrey must be cast in stories which are about the very problem of his infuriating egocentricity – and the path of his reform into a decent, normal guy. In Liar Liar, Carrey plays Fletcher – unscrupulous lawyer, unreliable ex-husband, bad father. His life is based on deceit of every kind.

For a little while, it seems as if this will be a reprise of the triangular intrigue in His Girl Friday (1940) – with Fletcher trying to woo Audrey (Maura Tierney) back from the arms of boring Jerry (Cary Elwes). But the plot takes its obligatory magical turn when Fletcher's cutesy son Max (Justin Cooper) makes a wish that renders our lying lawyer unstoppably truthful for twenty-four hours.

While Fletcher is compelled to spit out every awful truth on his mind – to colleagues, intimates and even the homeless on the street – this film becomes grossly entertaining. And particularly so when Carrey pulls out his bodily specialty: expressing inner conflicts by grotesquely contorting his face and physique, even to the point of (in a memorable scene) beating himself senseless.

The paradox of many Carrey movies is that only these constant outrages against public and private decency matter to his confirmed fans; all the rest – including pat moral lessons and sentimental resolutions – is a sanctimonious bore. Liar Liar handles this bind with little aplomb or irony, but it serves up some splendidly crude laughs along the way.

This movie suffers from another problem well known from the history of screen comedy: every secondary cast member is a mere foil, a straight man or woman, to the spinning-top of a star. Only the scenes where Fletcher clowns around with young Max exhibit any palpable rapport, because Carrey is still, profoundly and ineradicably, a childlike performer – and that is his glory.

MORE Shadyac: Patch Adams

MORE Carrey: The Cable Guy, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show, Batman Forever, Man on the Moon, Fun with Dick and Jane

© Adrian Martin June 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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