'The Mask' is not merely eye-popping, it's also good

July 29, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Staff Writer

"The Mask" may well become the summer's biggest hit. The reasons? As Stanley Ipkiss, Jim Carrey is a better action hero than Arnold in "True Lies" and an even nicer guy than Forrest Gump; "The Mask" takes an audience on as exhilarating a trip as "Speed"; and it features better animation than "The Lion King."

Finally, like most good popular entertainment, it also strikes some surprisingly deep chords.

There's been a lot of excited speculation about the dazzling technique of "The Mask" -- the way, for example, it uses computerized graphics and editing techniques to blend human acting with animation. It's all true. The breakthrough of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988) was the way it permitted actor Bob Hoskins to blend almost seamlessly with the denizens of the " 'toon" world. "The Mask" supersedes that achievement: in Carrey's Stanley, human and cartoon characteristics blend perfectly in one person. When Stanley wears the mask that gives the film its title, it's as if he's both Jerry Lewis and Bugs Bunny; you can't tell where one ends and the other begins.

Comparison of "The Mask" to Bugs Bunny cartoons and Jerry Lewis comedies is a considered judgment. Like Warner Bros.' wonderful old "Loony Tunes," "The Mask" creates an incredibly violent world in which permanent damage is rarely done. And, like Jerry Lewis films, "The Mask" is a form of wish fulfillment: the shy, nutty hero (who's terrified of women and can't take a step without bumping into something) wins an incredibly good-looking woman -- in Stanley's case, Cameron Diaz's Tina, who looks like Jessica Rabbit come to life.

In the words of his tyrannical landlady, Stanley is "a big nothing," a sad sack who works in a bank in Edge City, lives alone with his dog, Milo, and whose idea of fun on a Saturday night is watching tapes of old cartoons. But he's got a vivid sense of humor and his dreams are heroic and romantic.

He's also a nice guy. One night, while walking on a bridge (his car has broken down), he sees what he thinks is a man drowning. He jumps in, only to find out that what he thought was a body is just flotsam -- and an ancient wooden mask.

Stanley takes the mask home and discovers its magical powers when he puts it on. Instantly, the mask conforms to his features and he becomes a human tornado. When the whirlwind clears, Stanley has been transformed into a zoot-suited apparition with a green head, huge mischievous eyes and enormous teeth. Not only does he look different, but he's acquired superhuman powers. He can change shapes at will and move faster than the eye can see; he has unbelievable strength and is impervious to harm. And he has a dazzling array of costumes.

He's a cartoon character come alive. The mask empowers Stanley's id. That first night, he runs amok -- taking an appropriately noisy revenge on his silence-loving landlady, and exacting a poetically just retribution on two unscrupulous auto mechanics who cheated him earlier that day.

When Stanley wakes the next morning, he thinks it was a dream: his face has returned to normal and he's back in his pajamas. But a police lieutenant (Peter Riegert) becomes suspicious when Stanley says he didn't hear the prowler who wreaked havoc the night before.

Stanley's terrified, but the mask exerts a magnetic pull; he can't resist putting it on again and again. He foils bank robbers armed with automatic weapons, taking the money for himself; he whisks the luscious Tina across the dance floor at the Coco Bongo club, jiving with her at warp speed; and, when confronted by a battalion of armed police officers, Stanley uses his superpowers to control their minds. He turns what would have been a bloody rumble into a show-stopping rumba -- leading the cops in dance as he sings the Desi Arnaz standard, "Cuban Pete." It's the funniest resurrection of a golden oldie since the "Day-O!" sequence in "Beetlejuice."

Much of the film's success can be attributed to the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic who created its special effects. But "The Mask," which was directed by Charles Russell, is more than a collection of stunning visual gags. Carrey -- who became a star in demand after his performance in the sleeper hit "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" -- may be the finest comic to come along since Robin Williams. He does wildly brilliant impressions and he has ,, flexibility -- the man seems made as much of rubber as of flesh and blood -- of Buster Keatonesque proportions.

In fact, the person the mask-wearing, part-human, part-cartoon Stanley most resembles is the purely human Stanley. When The Mask sees Tina sing at the Coco Bongo, his chin drops to the floor, his eyes bug out several feet and his head turns lupine as he lets out a piercing wolf whistle. He can say everything to Tina that the maskless Stanley yearns to say.

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