Deneb does The Mask

“Look at that! It’s exactly two seconds before I honk your nose and pull your underwear over your head.”

The Scoop: 1994 PG, directed by Chuck Russell and starring Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Greene, Peter Riegert, Richard Jeni and Amy Yasbeck.

Tagline: From zero to hero.

Summary Capsule: Meek nice guy gets a mysterious mask that turns him into a human sight-gag. Wackiness ensues.

Deneb’s Rating: Four cartoon wolves out of five.

Deneb’s Review: You know how whenever you’re looking for something in a group of similar things which should include what you’re looking for, chances are about eighty to one that you’re not going to find it?

It’s Murphy’s Law. The bookstore has the series you’re looking for, but never the entry in it you want to buy. If you walk into an ice cream parlor with a craving for Double Fudge Brownie, guess what the one flavor is that they’re out of. It never fails.

Similarly, during the years when I was merely a casual reader of MRFH, there were certain films that I felt certain should have been reviewed already, yet somehow weren’t. Several of those holes have since been filled, mind you, but one of the ones that has remained empty up ‘til now was the hole where The Mask should have been.

Seriously, The Mask was one of the first cult movies I ever encountered that I knew well in advance had achieved that status. It came out while I was still in elementary school, and it got quoted ad nauseum by certain classmates (or so it seems looking back on it). I could practically recite all the lines from this thing long before I saw it. As such, when I discovered this site, I could hardly believe that it wasn’t one of the movies listed here – and I had a bit of a flashback to that disbelief not too long ago when I realized that this was still the case.

Well, no more. I’m a reviewer here now, goldurnit, and I can review just about any movie I darn well please – and right now, I please to review this one. So, yeah. It’s hole-fillin’ time. The Mask, ladies and gentlemen.

The story is set in a fictional metropolis known as Edge City, a run-down, polluted sort of place, where dwelleth one Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey). Stanley’s a pretty nice guy, and as such, the universe has decreed in its infinite wisdom that his life shall suck. He’s got a dead-end job at a bank, his boss yells at him, his landlady picks on him, and he can’t get a date to save his life. He’s the kind of guy who isn’t a loser, exactly, but who never seems to win – and it doesn’t look like things are going to change for him anytime soon.

Looks can be deceiving, though. After a particularly humiliating non-starter of an evening (which is honestly rather painful to watch), he happens to be in the right place at the right time, and acquires through random happenstance an old wooden mask. It’s not much in the way of compensation for the night he’s had, and he heads back home, feeling that life has flipped him the bird yet again.

Little does he know, though, that this is not just any mask. No, this is a magic mask, with ties to Norse mythology – it’s been chained up at the bottom of the harbor for who-knows-how-long, and it’s just itching to make up for lost time. The moment Stanley puts it on, he is transformed into (in his own words) a “love-crazy wild man”, a green-faced human cartoon character who can do just about anything – and what he primarily wants to do is have some fun.

Dubbed “The Mask” (for obvious reasons) by the media, Stanley’s alter-ego quickly runs afoul of both the mob and the law – the mob in the form of Dorian Tyrell (Peter Greene), a slick small-time operator who’s looking to get out from under the shadow of big-boss Niko (Orestes Matacena) by pulling a few jobs of his own. When the Mask ruins his plans, he swears vengeance on the funny-man – that is, if he can get to said funny-man before Lt. Kellaway (Peter Riegert), a cop who figures out pretty quickly that this chaos-causing clown is, in fact, Stanley Ipkiss, and who seeks to prove it.

None of this is helped in the slightest by the fact that Stanley has finally found a girl who seems interested in him – one Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz). She’s a drop-dead bombshell who is intrigued by our protagonist both in and out of the mask – and who happens to be Dorian’s girlfriend. Oh, this does not bode well.

All in all, Stanley’s life has just gotten a lot more interesting, and not (well, not entirely) in the ways he would have liked it to. Can he manage to stay out of jail and outwit Dorian before he gets his hands on the mask? Maybe – but it ain’t gonna be easy.

Before I go any further in talking about The Mask, let me just say that, for me, it is one of the defining movies of the mid-‘90’s. If nothing else, this is the flick that officially unleashed Jim Carrey upon the world, and for good or ill it’s a little difficult to imagine the topography of ‘90’s Hollywood without him. More than that, though, the movie is one of those flicks that is so representative of the time when it was made that it actually affected the time when it was made. I’ve already mentioned the catchphrases and such, but it’s more than that – there’s just something about the film’s overall mood and mindset that seems to codify the way we thought about things back then. I’m probably not doing a good job of explaining what I mean, but basically, if you want to get a hint of what the cultural mindset of the times was, I’d say The Mask is one of a handful of films that I would recommend you watch.

Having said that, is it any good? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out, now isn’t it?

Normally, I’d talk about other things before getting around to the main character, but there’s no way to escape it – you cannot talk about The Mask without first bringing up Jim Carrey’s performance. I’m not the biggest fan of Mr. Carrey – he’s been in some pretty dumb stuff in his time – but here? Here he makes the movie.

There is a reason why The Mask made Carrey’s career, and why many consider it the definitive example of his work – the guy goes nuts in this. I’ve read more reviews than I can list that say something along the lines of  “he hardly needs the special effects”. I’m not sure I’d go that far – they get pretty good mileage out of them – but holy crap does the guy pull out all the stops for this one. The Mask is the sort of character who’s so far over the top he busts through the ceiling. Just about every line that comes out of his mouth is quote-worthy, and if I could quote the weird little noises he makes, I would (especially since you will try and imitate them after you see this movie). He’s best described as (and this is actually addressed within the film to some degree) a sort of living incarnation of Tex Avery cartoons, every single wild take ever made collected into one man.

Now, this could come off as just a tad obnoxious, and at times it does. (I could have done without that weird snorting laugh, for instance – you’ll know what I mean when you hear it.) But there’s a good reason for that. The Mask is basically Stanley’s repressed Id come to life; he’s the explosion of steam when the lid is suddenly yanked off the pressure cooker. While we’re on his side because he fights the bad guys, he is not someone you’d want to be in a room with for very long – quite possibly because he might hurt you. The guy basically has no restraints and no limits, including those which govern basic human interaction; he’s pretty much solely out to have some fun, and while he’s certainly very funny himself, there are a few bits that hint at a side to him that is just a leetle bit disturbing. The scene in the park, for instance – tell me that things might not have escalated to decidedly uncomfortable levels if they hadn’t been interrupted when they were.

For all the Mask’s weapons-grade levels of wacky, however, he isn’t the main character. That would be Stanley Ipkiss himself, who (and it is worth emphasizing this) is not the Mask. The Mask is merely a part of his inner self that’s unleashed and concentrated – it’s not him.

In fact (and this is not emphasized on, say, the box cover), the Mask’s presence is not only not a beneficial one, it nearly tears Stanley’s life apart. Sure, the guy goes out and has the fun that Stanley would like to have, but then he goes bye-bye and leaves the poor slob to clean up the mess. He basically spends the whole movie stuck in a “careful what you wish for” scenario, and the only positive effect the damn mask has on him is that it forces him to be more assertive and take-charge – something like the most complicated and illegal therapy session ever.

Thankfully, we remain invested in all this because we like Stanley. Carrey does a good job playing him as just enough of an oddball that it makes perfect sense for the Mask to come out of him, while still making him a likable, relatable guy. And ‘relatable’ is a good word for him, because, to the filmmaker’s credit, he doesn’t suddenly turn into an action star when he has to go up against his tormentors. Sure, he gets some badass moments, but like most of us he can’t throw a punch to save his life, and if he tries to sneak past the bad guys, he’s probably going to fail. But he muddles through anyway, with or without that garish green face-covering on. The tagline may be “From Zero to Hero” (meaning, of course, the Mask), but they’ve got it wrong. The Mask isn’t the hero of the movie – Stanley is.

So okay, okay, the Mask and Stanley are fine – what about the rest of it? The rest of it is OK, too. I mean, nobody is going to be giving The Mask an award for innovative storytelling anytime soon, but it’s a fun little film, and that’s all it’s really trying to be. Whenever a film is based around a single character and performance, the bits without said performance are going to seem a little lackluster, but who cares? It’s still a lot of fun, and some parts approach brilliance – the “Cuban Pete” sequence, for instance, is dementedly entertaining enough to be worth the price of admission on its own.

In fact, I think the main reason I enjoy this movie as much as I do is that, despite its billing, it’s not really a comedy. It’s marketed as one, and it can be very funny – but really only when the titular character is zipping around. For the rest of the running time, it’s basically a straight-faced adventure story with an element of the fantastic, and I’ve always liked those sorts of combinations. My theory is that most genres – comedy, tragedy, what have you – are more effective when combined with one or two others, and The Mask would seem to bear that out.

It should be addressed, though, that this is not, in point of fact, an original movie – it’s based on a comic, which it is veeeery different from, and which it has largely eclipsed in the public eye. Its fans have complained that the movie is essentially a neutered version of the original, which is much darker and at times verges on being a horror story, with lots of violence and blood. Having only read snippets of it myself, I can’t comment, but I will say that going by what little I have read, The Mask stays more or less true to the overall spirit of the comic, if not the particulars. And anyway, if you want dark and bloody, there are plenty of other movies that will deliver in spades. I’ll just enjoy my wackiness, thank you very much.

Rest-of-characters time. The most prominent member of the supporting cast is Cameron Diaz as Tina Carlyle, and she’s actually rather an interesting character. In many ways, Tina is a classic “bad girl” type – I mean, as the movie starts out, she’s more or less Dorian’s gun moll (albeit without the gun). And while she crosses over to the side of the angels pretty quickly, she doesn’t actually change very much – she’s a seductive, forthright woman, a little on the trashy side as far as cultural stereotypes go, but still sympathetic all the way through.

Really, her growing relationship with Stanley is a definite “opposites attract” sort of thing. Who knows what she had with Dorian once upon a time, but it’s clearly faded now, and while at first Mr. Ipkiss seems like just another mark, this quickly changes. While he sees the girl of his dreams who is clearly out of his league (which is part of the impetus for him continuing to put on the mask), she sees a nice man who treats her as a fellow human being as opposed to a piece of arm candy. Sure, she’s intrigued by his alter ego (who wouldn’t be?), but she’s looking for a real man, not a cartoon character, and in Stanley – plain old regular Stanley – she finds one.

This is a good thing for her, because I doubt she would have survived being in Dorian’s clutches for much longer. Peter Greene plays him as one of the definitive lowlife slimeballs of the ‘90’s, a guy who thinks he’s just too cool for words, and is not afraid to lash out at anyone who either disagrees with this or gets in his way. Sure, you can sympathize with him a little bit, since he’s basically just trying to escape from his boss’s iron grip, but honestly, the guy is so incredibly sleazy that he is cruisin’ for a bruisin’ from the green fist of justice. And when (uh, slight spoiler) he does wind up donning the mask, the results are somewhat scary, and remind you of just how dark the source material could get. He may not be one of the more complex villains around, but he’s certainly a memorable one, and has earned a place on my personal second-tier favorites list.

As for the rest, you’ve got Lt. Kellaway, played by Peter Riegert as a persistent and short-tempered thorn in Stanley’s side, and who really is unusually intelligent and competent for a cop in this sort of movie. (This is made up for by Doyle (Jim Doughan), his dimwitted partner.) Amy Yasbeck plays Peggy Brandt, a reporter who is looking into this whole Mask business and is more than what she seems, while Richard Jeni plays Charlie, Stanley’s coworker and only real friend. A good running gag is his increasing bewilderment as his normally socially-invisible pal gets asked for specifically by a succession of beautiful women.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Milo, Stanley’s faithful pet. According to the credits, the actual name of the pooch in question is Max, and I hope he lived to a ripe old age and got lots of doggie treats because he’s a complete scene-stealer here. Sure, he’s cute as the dickens and all, but unlike some animal actors, this dog can act – you don’t see him wagging his tail while growling or the like, and he’s got a natural canine charisma that shines through. (Also, having just reviewed The Adventures of Tintin, I’d swear that some of Snowy’s sequences in that were modeled after Milo’s. Watch the two back-to-back and tell me I’m wrong.)

Final thoughts? The Mask is not in the upper echelon of my movie favorites, but it’s a good, solid film that I enjoy. It’s got a good cast, a great villain, special effects that have held up surprisingly well over the years (considering that they’re supposed to be cartoony), and, of course, the definitive Jim Carrey performance. It’s got its weaknesses, sure, but it’s a fun little flick, and frankly, I couldn’t imagine the ‘90’s without it. Go ahead and check it out, if you haven’t already.

There. The hole, she is filled. Yer welcome.

While he would never say as much in front of his friends (all of whom were passionately devoted to the game), if questioned, Bob would have been forced to admit that the complex rules of Indoor Croquet had always left him a trifle confused.

Intermission!

  • One might suspect that the changing of The Mask from blackly comedic ultra-violence to Tex Avery-style wackiness was yet another example of image-conscious studio heads ordering changes – but in fact, exactly the reverse is true. New Line Cinema was quite intrigued by the psychotic original Mask, seeing him as “the next Freddy Krueger”. As such, director Chuck Russell was all set to depict him that way, but after reading through multiple drafts of the script, he realized that he simply could not figure out a way to make it work except comedically. Subsequently, he had to convince the skeptical studio heads that the new direction he had planned was worth following, which was a long, hard slog until Jim Carrey’s treatment of the character finally tipped the scales.
  • You may have noticed that the toothy grin Carrey sports as the Mask is not in fact his own, instead being part of the make-up. (I say ‘may have’ because I only just noticed this myself, something that does not reflect particularly well upon my intelligence – I mean, look at those choppers!) It was originally planned to only feature in silent shots, as it was thought that it would impede Carrey’s performance – however, he learned how to speak around the teeth, and they were kept in the general design.
  • The titular mask changes quite a bit in the transition from the comic, as does its background. In the original, it’s African (not much more is known than that), and made out of jade. In the movie, it’s Scandinavian, and wooden.
  • The bit where Stanley’s landlady asks if he knows what time it is and he says “Actually, no” is a callback to a cut scene where his watch is stolen by street thugs. This comes up again later, as he encounters the same thugs as the Mask.
  • The yellow zoot suit that the Mask wears at one point (and which everybody thinks of him wearing when they think of the film) is based on a real suit of Jim Carrey’s from his stand-up comedy days. It was made by his mother as something for him to wear onstage.
  • The role and character of Stanley Ipkiss was changed somewhat for the film – in the original, he was a bitter, angry man who was quick to use the mask to wipe out everyone who had tormented him. Furthermore he was only one of a long line of people to wear it, as it inevitably ruined its owners’ lives, and usually wound up killing them in the process.
  • The Mask’s crack of “where’s a camcorder when ya need one?” is likely a reference to the Rodney King beating.
  • Most of Stanley’s whirlwind-like transformations into the Mask take place in his apartment, where a couch cushion featuring the likeness of the Tasmanian Devil (who spins around in much the same way) is prominently featured.
  • While the original comic is called The Mask, this is a reference to the mask itself as opposed to its wearer. Instead, the various people who wear it are collectively termed “Big Head” by the media, and thought by the general public to all be the same person.

Groovy Quotes:

Charlie: That girl will tear out your heart, put it in a blender and hit frappe.

The Mask: Oooh, somebody stop me!

Peggy Brandt: Do you know how hard it is to find a decent man in this town? Most of ‘em think monogamy is some kind of wood.

The Mask: Je t’adore… Je t’adore… Je t’a-window; I don’t care!

Stanley Ipkiss: It’s a power tie. It’s supposed to make you feel powerful.
Tina Carlyle: Does it work?
Stanley Ipkiss: No.

The Mask: Let’s rock this joint!

Stanley Ipkiss: Y’know, Mrs. Peenman –
Mrs. Peenman: What?
Stanley Ipkiss: …Nothing.
Mrs. Peenman: Well, that’s what you are, Ipkiss, a big nothing! (She storms off)
Stanley Ipkiss: ‘Aren’t you due back at the laboratory to get your bolts tightened?’ I shoulda said that.

The Mask: Look, Ma – I’m roadkill!

Dorian Tyrell: I’m gonna take you apart.
Stanley Ipkiss: Well, I hope you can enjoy the victory with one friggin’ eye!

The Mask: Our love is like a red, red rose, and I am a little thorny.

Burt (handing Stanley a bill): Sign right here, and press down hard.
Stanley Ipkiss: There’s no price.
Burt: Well, there will be.

Bobby the Bouncer: Are you on the list?
The Mask: N-ooooo, but I believe my friends are; perhaps you know them? (whips out a double handful of cash) Franklin, Grant and… Jackson?

Lt. Kellaway: You start dancin’, I’ll blow your brains out.

The Mask: (consulting watch) Look at that! It’s exactly two seconds before I honk your nose and pull your underwear over your head.

Stanley Ipkiss: BACK OFF, monkey-boy!

The Mask: I think he wants to communicate.

Charlie: What side of whose bed did you wake up on, man?

The Mask: (in a French accent) Kiss me, my dear, and I will reveal my croissant – I will spread your pâté – I will dip my ladle in your vichyssoise…!

Stanley Ipkiss: What is this city coming to when a man’s pajama drawer is no longer safe?

Dorian Tyrell: There’s always time for one last kiss.

The Mask: That’s a spicy meat-a-ball!

Stanley Ipkiss: It’s nothing any American with balls of steel wouldn’t do for his community.

The Mask: Hold on t’yer lugnuts, it’s… TAHHM fer an overhaul!

Peggy Brandt: Can you tell me what happened here?
Lt. Kellaway: No, and you can quote me.

The Mask: It’s party time! P-A-R-T – Y? Because I gotta!

Stanley Ipkiss: I don’t even own a car. Y’know, ‘cause they pollute.
Peggy Brandt: You don’t own an ’89 Civic?
Stanley Ipkiss: …Oh, that car, yeah.

The Mask: Hold on, sugar! Daddy’s got a sweet tooth tonight!

Stanley Ipkiss: You stay here and be a good boy. Daddy’s gonna have to go kick some ass.

The Mask: (repeated line) SssMOkin’!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Dick Tracy
  • Ace Ventura, Pet Detective
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit
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4 Comments

  1. I’m glad you reviewed this, Deneb. I saw that it was missing a while back and obviously got distracted by other things before getting around to reviewing it. It’s still one of my favorite films and likely one I’ll review one day, if I decide I have more to say on it than you captured so well. I, like you, was surprised that it still hadn’t been done after all these years.

    On the topic of this movie’s influence on the 90’s, I could be wrong, and I know Mike would know more about this than I would, but wasn’t this film the reason for the big 90’s swing revival?

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it.
      While I’ll admit that I have no idea regarding the swing thing, it was my impression that it had just started while this movie was being made, hence its inclusion. Still, the movie WAS awfully popular at the time, and its generally retro sensibility would make the inclusion of anachronistic music not TOO out of character, so – maybe? I dunno.

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