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ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘The Mask’ (1994), Part One

Chris Sims: Hello everyone, and welcome to ComicsAlliance vs. The ’90s, our in-depth review series on some of the films of that era based on independent superheroes. Today, we’re heading back to 1994 for a sssssssmmmmmokin’ review of The Mask starring Jim Carrey! Remember that? Smokin’? Like in the movie?

Matt Wilson: I can only assume that if we do much more of that, we’ll start begging for someone to stop us. Chris: Along with his big breakout in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask was one of the movies that really solidified Jim Carrey as the biggest comedy star of the decade, and since I was just about to turn 12 when it came out, I was right in the target audience to see it roughly four hundred times. I haven’t seen it since, though, so I’m pretty curious as to how well it’s going to hold up now that I’m bitter, jaded, hateful and 30.

Matt: I likewise saw it dozens of times in my youth, only to discover the original John Arcudi/Doug Mahnke comics later, which derived a ton of influence from The Joker and The Creeper. It was extremely shocking to preteen me just how violent those comics were, and the fate our old hero Stanley Ipkiss meets in them. It was only after the huge success of this movie and its cartoon adaptation that the basically tragic comics became sillier.

Chris: Yeah, I only ever read one of the comics when I was a kid, and I was confused as hell and really put off by it. I was expecting the kind of over-the-top slapstick of the movie, but… Well, take it away, Wikipedia:

After taking the mask off, Stan begins to realize what has been happening. His acts as Big Head begin to take an emotional toll on him. He becomes verbally abusive toward Kathy. She kicks him out but keeps the mask since Stanley had bought it as a gift for her.

Later Stan breaks into her apartment to steal it back just as the police respond to their earlier domestic violence call. Deciding his only way out is as Big Head, Stan places the mask back on and kills 11 cops in his escape. He returns home as Big Head and takes off the mask only to be shot in the back and killed by Kathy, who has put two and two together and figured out the identity of Big Head, before putting the mask on herself.

Chris: Not exactly “From Zero to Hero.”

Matt: That happens in the middle of the first mini-series. (And it’s worth noting that the comics called the wearer of the mask Big Head until after the movie.) From then on, it’s other people, mainly a cop, who wear the mask. But, essentially, this movie takes “pathetic sad sack” and “psychopathic murderer” and makes them “loveable loser” and “human cartoon.”

Chris: And those (massive) tweaks to the formula ended up making it a huge success, too. The Mask spawned a cartoon and a couple of Carrey-free (and reportedly unwatchable) sequels, and the movie itself was critically acclaimed and, believe it or not, Academy Award-nominated. It ended up losing Best Visual Effects to Forrest Gump, however, which is pretty surprising. What visual effects were in Forrest Gump? Was that one shot of Tom Hanks meeting Nixon really more impressive than Jim Carrey in a banana-yellow zoot suit?

Matt: It was certainly less rubbery-looking. This movie was part of an early wave of movies that came out after Jurassic Park that made ample use of CGI. I don’t know how this movie stacks up compared to others of the time in terms of CG use, but there really are a ton of special-effects shots, all of which use that type of animation.

Chris: I remember thinking that they nailed that Live-Action Tex Avery Cartoon look they were going for, but again, I was 12 at the time. As you might expect, this wasn’t the last time that director Chuck Russell would work with a rubbery over-the-top star, as he later directed Eraser, starring Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Matt: It’s odd to look at Russell’s IMDb page and see not a whole lot after The Mask, given that it was such a big hit. There were plans for a Jim Carrey-starring sequel that never panned out for some reason. It’s almost as if the big-band trappings of the movie dated it in such a way that the only sequel anyone could figure out would be a kids’ movie starring Jamie Kennedy 11 years later.

Chris: Apparently Carrey opted out of The Mask II because of a bad experience with Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, something I think most people who saw Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls can identify with.

Matt: He did actually go on to make some movies with integrity, like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and dark-comedy classics like The Cable Guy instead, so I can’t really blame him. But enough of the Jim Carrey career guide. Let’s start the movie, shall we?

Chris: We open on the smokestack and pollution filled skyline of Edge City, which will somehow not be the worst name for a town that we will experience during our grand tour of the ’90s – lookin’ at you here, Steel Harbor. There’s some underwater construction going on when a SCUBA diver named Mike, who I’m 100% sure is named after Dark Horse’s Mike Richardson, discovers a treasure chest half-buried in the silt.

Matt: That opening shot of Edge City is actually a really nice piece of production design. It sets this tone right away of urban decay. It’s an environment that could totally create a beaten-down person like Stanley Ipkiss.

Chris: The fact that we’re opening on a close shot of sewer pipes dripping green sludge into the harbor with a factory level from a MechWarrior game in the background isn’t exactly subtle, but you’re not wrong.

Matt: Mike jimmies the chest open just in time to get crushed by a section of pipe. The titular mask floats to the surface as the title hits the screen. And something that doesn’t set a great tone? The music. I didn’t notice as a kid how Casio-keyboard this score really was.

Chris: It’s worth noting that even though things were toned down from the multiple homicides of the comics, a dude does get crushed to death and drown within the first 90 seconds of this thing. So, you know, at least a little bit of that violence made it to the screen intact.

Matt: The Mask is still a malevolent presence, for sure. It’s just that now, if the person who wears it isn’t a mass murderer, it doesn’t automatically turn him/her into one.

Chris: Speaking of the person who wears it, meet mild-mannered banker and Olympic-level doormat Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey), who gets totally played by his coworker into giving her two sold-out concert tickets rather than actually taking her out on a date like he intended.

Matt: Smooth-talking co-worker Richard Jeni notices the vicious steamrolling Stanley takes and invites him for a night out at the hottest new joint in town, the Coco Bongo Club, the first whiff that this movie is deep into the swing revival trend of the era. I mean, full-force.

Chris: It’s also during this scene that we get a title card announcing “And Introducing Cameron Diaz.” I knew this was her big breakout role, but I’d completely forgotten that it was actually her first movie. Well, except for a softcore bondage picture from 1992 that was later released as “She’s No Angel” to capitalize on her role in Charlie’s Angels, that is. Incidentally, that one’s not on Netflix.

Matt: And speak of the devil/not-angel, here she is at the bank Stanley works in, looking to open a new account. The lengthy cross-cutting shots of her entering the room and Carrey/Jeni leering at her convey the basic message that they find her to be an attractive young woman.

Chris: They’re so over-the-top with their ogling that you’d think they were Chris Sims and Matt Wilson watching Jennifer Connelly or something.

Matt: And this ogling isn’t even half of the ogling this movie will achieve.

Chris: No kidding. Diaz leaves her jacket with Richard Jeni, who holds it up to his face and takes a deep breath before allowing his head to loll back orgasmically, and I have to admit that I’m cracking up over this for completely different reasons than I did when I was a kid. The crazy sexaphone soundtrack is pretty amazing here, too.

Matt: It’s like the music from an after-dark Cinemax movie mated with the soundtrack to the Shawshank Redemption. After some physical business with his desk, there is some…unsubtle flirtation between Diaz, whose character is named Tina Carlyle, and Stanley over his rorschach tie.

Chris: Coming back to this movie after 17 years, you definitely notice things you didn’t the first time around, like her breathy interpretation of the tie as “a young woman riding bareback,” which is even more hilarious because you know the crusty old members of the MPAA didn’t catch that one either. Unfortunately for Stanley, though, it turns out that her lusty flirtations are just a cover – she’s got a video camera in her purse and she’s casing the joint for Dorian Tyrell, the Most ’90s Criminal Ever.

Chris: Seriously, check out that White Beefy T / Suit Jacket With Leather Accents combination. If the camera pulls back and he’s not rocking acid wash jeans, I will be shocked.

Matt: If there’s any doubt of the 90sness of this criminal operation, just look at the size of that camera in her purse! It’s one step away from when Homer Simpson tried to do a sting on the Kwik-E-Mart with a camera in a giant novelty cowboy hat.

Chris: Tyrell is going to heist the bank without telling his local capo, Niko, who just happens to be pictured in an 8×10 headshot on his desk so that Tyrell can burn out its eyes with a cigarette for extra drama. That’s a hell of a bit of business to just drop into a scene, to the point where I’m wondering if it’s The Mask that gives Ipkiss the ability to pull things out of nowhere, or if that’s just a thing that all Edge Citizens can do.

Matt: Listen, Tyrell is an aspiring criminal with an air hockey table in his office. This is a guy who spares no expense. He’s probably got portraits of any and all competing criminals on hand in case he needs to mangle them in some way.

Chris: As Tyrell and his pal “The Doctor” (amazing) share a sinister laugh right out of a cartoon, we cut back to Stanley for yet another example of his doormat status. A pair of mechanics who might as well have SCAM ARTIST AUTO REPAIR written over their garage door are bilking him out of a yet-to-be determined sum, with the added humiliation of giving him “The Loaner.”

Matt: The Doctor is none other than Reg E. Cathy, who was in both Pootie Tang and The Wire. Few actors have that kind of pedigree. Stanley arrives at the Coco Bongo club in the loaner, a smoking heap with no paint on it, to which the club patrons react in disgust. Maybe it smells like poop, too. He briefly meets with a hilariously dressed Charlie (Jeni), but some oddly staged physical comedy leads to Stanley getting thrown out of the club before he can even come in.

Chris: Two things about this: 1) The Coco Bongo club is drenched in so much neon that you’d think Joel Schumacher was the set designer, and 2) The Loner is actually an awesome old Studebaker that’s been junked up for effect. You’d think with the swing revival in Edge City, those scamechanics would realize they could make a ton of money restoring that thing.

Matt: Speaking of stagey sets, the next scene is the loaner stalling out as Stanley drives across a bridge. The delayed timing of the car falling apart after Stanley kicks it is pretty terrific. I think it might be my favorite gag in the whole movie.

Chris: Carrey’s reactions to all this are pretty great, too. As much as we all remember his big slapstick, his smaller bits of exasperation at the car, his humiliation in front of Diaz and his life in general have all been pretty solid up to this point.

Matt: That’s the thing. I really like his performance as Stanley. It’s only once things ramp up that the movie edges toward grating. And we’re about to get there. After the car collapses, he notices what he thinks is a person in the river, only to discover it’s a pile of trash. Among that refuse, he finds The Mask, which glimmers with a weird light and makes the score abruptly change for a second.

Chris: This is a pretty solid scene too, since it establishes that Stanley is at least a good enough person that he’ll jump into a river to save a drowning man (or man-shaped pile of trash) and not just a complete and utter simp.

Matt: He nearly puts The Mask on then and there, but he’s interrupted by some cops doing their nightly patrol of that completely empty bridge in the middle of a big city, and just goes home to his mean old landlord and super-cute dog.

Chris: As Stanley mopes about his awful life, game show host and former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein shows up in the role of Ben Stein to talk about masks, and Stanley decides that it’s a good idea to put a chunk of wood that he found floating in the filthiest river since the Cuyahoga Fire of 1969 directly onto his face. Stanley Ipkiss: A Man of Bad Decisions.

Matt: This is after he puts on a VHS of old Tex Avery cartoons to explain his behavior later. Apparently, it was Stanley’s love of old cartoons that attracted Carrey to the role.

Chris: The cartoon influence kicks right off, too, as the mask envelops Stanleys head and makes him spin around like a tornado, with a Tazmanian Devil throw pillow in the background just in case you were a little slow on getting that reference. Then, at long last, we have The Mask:

Chris: LET THE CATCHPHRASES BEGIN.

Matt: His very first line is “Sssssmokin’!” The first thing out of his huge-toothed mouth.

Chris: The second is “It’s party time! P-A-R-T-WHY? Because I GOTTA!” Then he pulls out a giant hammer and smashes an alarm clock. I’ll say this for it, there is no time wasted in getting to what 12-year-old Chris really wanted to see.

Matt: You know, this version of The Mask is supposed to be a clear deviation from the reckless killer of the comics, but seeing this years later, it’s really kind of terrifying. I don’t know if it’s the quality of the early CG, or how much I associate this kind of cartoonish behavior with Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but I can’t totally blame the landlord for wanting to kill him with a shotgun.

Chris: One of the things I missed as a kid was that Carrey’s playing it as intentionally grating and annoying. At 12, you just think that stuff’s comedy, but it’s actually a nice contrast to how meek and likeable Stanley is. The Mask isn’t just cartoonish, he’s super confrontational. Which we see in great detail as he wanders out of the apartment (in a zoot suit complete with swingin’ chain) and promptly gets into what I can only describe as hijinx.

Matt: A cab driver honks at him, so he destroys his car with a cartoon horn of his own. Some street thugs try to rob him (because a guy with a green face seems like easy takings, right) and he attacks them with a balloon-animal tommy gun.

Chris: After an extended balloon animal making scene where he pulls out a used condom and dangles it in front of the camera!

Chris: It is amazing what slipped past the MPAA on this one.

Matt: Well, it was PG-13, though the rating description is only for “some stylized violence.”

Chris: I think what I really mean is “it’s amazing what slipped past 12-year-old me in this one.”

Matt: The Mask/Big Head’s next stop is the garage, where there is the strong implication that he sodomizes the unscrupulous mechanics with two giant exhaust pipes. I’m guessing that slipped by you, too. I thought he just beat them up.

Chris: No, that one was pretty clear. You later see them getting wheeled out with exhaust pipes rammed right up there. As toned down as things are, it’s still kind of a horror movie at this point, if you’re looking at it with any kind of realistic expectations whatsoever. Which, to be fair, we probably shouldn’t be.

Matt: He’s basically a werewolf, or probably more accurately, Jekyll and Hyde. To the point that Stanley wakes up the next morning uncertain that he actually did any of that stuff until Lt. Kellaway, the cop from the comic who later becomes Big Head, arrives at his door to ask about the disturbance the night before.

Chris: You know things are out of control when even Boon from Animal House thinks you were partying too hard.

Matt: A late-for-work Stanley rushes through his trashed apartment to get ready and tosses The Mask out the window, only for it to fly right back in. And, you’re right, there are the mechanics, with the exhaust pipes coming right out of their rears. They’re also purple and green for some reason?

Chris: And just in case you missed it, a cop wanders by the foreground radioing that he wants “a proctologist standing by.” Note to my younger self: That’s a butt doctor.

Matt: Stanley arrives at work to a royal chewing out from his Spacely-like boss, Mr. Dickey, a name that inspired guffaws of laughter from me years ago. This movie really knows its preteen boy audience.

Chris: While the bankers are reminiscing about Cameron Diaz, our second love interest of the evening walks in: the cute-as-a-dang-button reporter Peggy Brandt (Amy Yasbeck), who’s looking for Stanley as part of her story on the Mask.

Matt: I have long been afflicted with thinking that Amy Yasbeck and Joely Fisher, who played the co-worker Stanley gave the concert tickets to earlier, were the same person. So the narrative flow of this movie was really weird to me when Brandt showed up and was nice to Stanley.

Chris: Jinkies, Matt! We’re solving so many childhood mysteries with this review! It turns out that Peggy is also an advice columnist who printed a letter from Stanley where he was complaining about how hard it is to be a Nice Guy, which makes me think that if he hadn’t found the Mask, he probably would’ve moved on to being a Men’s Rights Activist, a Pickup Artist, or the creator of Dilbert.

Matt: Peggy’s advice column does not pay well, so she’s getting into the investigative reporter game (which, I hate to tell her, is also no money train.) She’s investigating the attack on the mechanics, and “Nice Guy” Stanley lies to her to throw her off the scent. In response to that, she gives him her personal number.

Chris: Dang, he really IS a pickup artist.

Matt: His Big Head getups are basically what Mystery wears. Tyrell shows up to talk to a golf-swing-practicing Niko, and could the criminals in this movie be any more soft-spoken? I can barely hear anything these guys say.

Chris: Niko is also rocking the bald-on-top/ponytail-in-the-back look, just in case we needed another way for this movie to look instantly dated.

Matt: I guess their whispery tones are supposed to be a contrast to the INSANE VOLUME of Big Head. Niko lets Tyrell know he’s on to what he’s doing on the side by having his guys shove a tee in his mouth and hitting a golf ball off it. Niko tells Tyrell to skip town.

Chris: Tyrell doesn’t take the hint, though, because his big robbery of Stanley’s bank is set to take place that night. Meanwhile, Stanley has gone to bed early, only to be awoken from a dream where Cameron Diaz is vigorously licking his ear. You can probably see where all of this is going.

Matt: Yeah, yeah, it’s the dog. Stanley awakes and hatches a plan: If Tina won’t be into him as regular old him, maybe she’ll be into a green-faced guy in a zoot suit. Again: “Nice Guy” Stanley is going to be someone other than himself to impress a hot blonde because, I guess, a hot redhead who is being very direct about her interest in him, as he is, isn’t dream material.

Chris: Stanley decides that he’ll have better luck sarging at the Coco Bongo club if he goes for maximum peacocking, and ends up as the Mask in the movie’s iconic yellow zoot suit. There is, however, a problem, as he has no money. Now, I realize we are well beyond the bounds of reality at this point, but really, that’s the limit of the Mask’s powers? He can pull anything that’s comedically appropriate out of his pockets, but still needs to hit an ATM before he goes to the club?

Matt: Any old mask can create giant mallets and balloons out of nowhere, but printing legal tender is the sole responsibility of the U.S. Treasury, sir.

Chris: What about the giant money bags with dollar signs on them?

Matt: That’s the Commerce Department, I think. Big Head hits the bank where Stanley himself works, just seconds before The Doctor and his crew are about to rob it. The Doctor, master crook that he is, opts to shoot at the cops that arrive, despite the fact he didn’t rob anything.

Chris: You really wonder why they decide to pull out guns as soon as they hear the approaching sirens rather than, say, running away, but I guess this is one of those episodes where the TARDIS is broken.

Matt: He’s got so many companions that they won’t fit, even with the inside being so big. Big Head arrives at the club in an insanely long stretch limo. I honestly expected the gag with the limo being impossibly stretched to last longer than it did, though. It’s one of a very few instances I kind of wanted more from one of this movie’s gags.

Chris: Good thing that’s not an issue once we get inside. The Mask sets up at a corner table to watch Cameron Diaz’s performance, which involves singing a song while shimmying and groping herself, prompting an appropriately Tex Averyan response:

Chris: The thing is, nobody else in the club seems to even notice that this dude in the bright yellow suit with the gigantic green head is turning into a wolf and beating himself with a hammer. Edge City has some jaded public, dude.

Matt: Cameron Diaz is basically being Jessica Rabbit in this scene, so their cartoon-tolerance threshold is high.

Chris: It’s interesting (to me and no one else) that between the two love interests, the redhead’s not the one in the vampy nightclub singer role, since that would be closer to the Avery cartoons, and they’re both pretty ridiculously attractive. Then again, they probably realized that the vast majority of their audience would not care about whether the visual metaphor for a slightly obscure animation director from the ’50s matched up perfectly.

Matt: Once Tina’s song is over, Big Head jumps into action, turning the band into…a band in darker clothes. I’m not sure what difference that makes, really, but they launch into a jaunty swing tune so that Big Head and Tina can do a lengthy dance performance as Tyrell finds The Doctor at the club in a state of near-death, where he says someone got to the bank before him. A club seems like a less than great place to go when you’re gut shot.

Chris: Especially when he has to climb up stairs to get to the office. Tyrell demands to know who did this, and instead of saying “a guy with a giant green head and cartoon powers,” which you would think would be a pretty memorable description to make, he stutters for a bit until he sees the Mask cutting a rug with Cameron Diaz on the floor below.

Matt: This is some advanced rug cutting. Some “she should be dead”-level rug cutting.

Chris: It’s pretty darn ludicrous, right down to a pretty great scene where the Mask kisses Diaz and literally blows her shoes off. And then the gunfire starts!

Matt: One of Tyrell’s thugs shoots Big Head’s tie off, and it turns back into part of Stanley’s pajamas on the floor. That’s a neat trick. Everyone clears out of the club and Tyrell asks where his money is. He should have known better. He fell right into an accountancy gag!

Chris: And the sight gags keep coming as the thug unloads on the Mask, only to have him turn into a Cossack, a matador, Elvis and a cowboy. And once again: Nobody seems to think this is unusual. You’d think Tyrell would at least say “hey, that’s a little weird that there is an actual super-powered shapeshifter in my club,” but nothing of the sort is mentioned.

Matt: And when he finally takes a bullet, Tyrell and his goon are so pleased. Like, “Oh, good, we did it.” I mean, there’s a certain point at which you have to realize he is essentially the genie from Aladdin.

Chris: The happy look they exchange is a definite high point of the film.

Matt: After a surreal award-speech moment, Lt. Kellaway and a bunch of other cops arrive to arrest Tyrell. I guess The Doctor and his crew were right to fire at the cops earlier, because Edge City’s police will arrest you with no evidence whatsoever.

Chris: Well, they did follow a bunch of heavily armed bank robbers to the club and then find a dead body in the upstairs office, so there’s at least probable cause. But then, Lieutenant Donald “Boon” Schoenstein finds the scrap of distinctively nautical pajamas on the floor and heads back to Stanley’s place for further questioning.

Matt: This scene is almost as surreal as the last, because a police officer is banging on Stanley’s door, his closet is bursting with stolen money, and rather than playing it as suspenseful, the score sounds like it came from the opening scene of Beethoven’s Second.

Chris: The weird thing is that it’s not a good score for a suspenseful moment or a goofy sight gag. It’s like the music department just decided to drop the flute from Peter and the Wolf in there as a placeholder and never got around to taking it out.

Matt: Eventually, Kellaway comes inside to question Stanley about these smoking pajamas he’s found, and Stanley refutes the flimsy evidence (I actually think those nautical pajamas are kind of cool and lots of people would want to wear them) with the flimsy excuse that they were stolen.

Chris: Clearly, Edge City is operating on the Phoenix Wright legal system. Back at the police station, they have security camera footage of the Mask zooming around like a cartoon character, and the only comment is “that’s one hell of a rubber mask.”

Matt: The cops did find some prints on the money, though, so Kellaway tells the lab boys to run them against Stanley’s. Meanwhile, Tyrell is offering $50,000 to whoever can get the green-faced guy who is invincible to bullets, alive. That actually seems like a lowball deal.

Chris: Cameron Diaz calls Tyrell out for “losing it” and he is understandably upset that his lady friend was making out with another man in the middle of his club, cartoon powers notwithstanding. I’m not sure couples therapy is even capable of dealing with a problem like one party cheating with someone who can turn his head into a wolf.

Matt: The not noticing the guy turning into a cartoon wolf seems to be more evidence of losing it than the jealousy. And that would mean everyone in Edge City is over the cliff.

Chris: Things do seem pretty perilous at this point: The Mob is after the Mask, the cops are after Stanley, Cameron Diaz is going through a breakup and if memory serves, we haven’t seen the last of Peggy Brandt either. Join us next week to see how it all shakes out, and whether or not our “Sssssssmokin’!” count will stand at two!

ComicsAlliance vs. the ’90s:

The Rocketeer (1991), Part One
The Rocketeer (1991), Part Two

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