Jim Carrey scored one of his earliest hits with the comic book adaptation The Mask. Wil loved it as a kid. Turns out he loves it now...
You look back on most things from your childhood, and chances are they aren't as good as you thought they were when you were eight. That's okay - you're allowed to like garbage as a child. I'm just often a bit shocked at how ambivalent things were that I liked before I hit double digits. My young tastes in general were terrible.
I mention this because of the CGI-heavy Jim Carrey film from 1994The mask, which was my second favorite movie as a kid, is actually a lot better than I remembered it being. It honestly has a depth I didn't expect to revisit as an adult. It might actually resonate with me more in my twenties than it did when I was a kid. And that's because I think it's actually a parable about drinking too much alcohol.
The originalmaskSeries by John Acurdi and Doug Mahnke published in Dark Horse Comic's 1989 anthologyChaos, is not something anyone would ever put money into to be adapted into a family-friendly comedy. The basic set-up is the same as the film - deadbeat loser Stanley Ipkiss finds an ancient wooden mask that, if worn at night, transforms him into a green-skinned, unstoppable live-action Tex Avery cartoon. But how it ends is very, very different.
Rather than the ultimately heroic journey Ipkiss takes in the film, in the short original comic run he uses the powers to settle old scores, hunt down friends who owe him money, and injure the mechanics who fixed him with a... have pulled the silencer over the table. It quickly devolves into ultra violence and a massive police chase, and the whole series is a bit like gamingGrand Theft Autobut don't do any of the missions, just run around killing cops. It's a very odd choice of inspiration for a mainstream PG-13 comedy - aside from the violence, the tone is much closer to, say, the Michael Douglas-as-disgruntled-clerk thrillerfalling downthan it isAce Ventura.
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After the sinking ofChaos, the concept was switched to its own four-issue limited series. After Ipkiss was killed in the last installment of the anthology, the lead turned to Lieutenant Kellaway, a police detective character (mostly used only as a comic foil in the film) who used the mask to bring down an unstoppable Frankenstein-esque crime lord. It became more of a recognizable vigilante story, but still miles away from a standard superhero comic.
Originally developed asUlmenstraße-style horror franchise from New Line Pictures, the property eventually morphed into a vehicle for Jim Carrey's rubber-faced talents, who followed the massive breakout success ofAce Ventura: Third Detective.
The film's plot broadly merged these first two comic arcs. Stanley Ipkiss (Carrey) is a shy idiot who works in a bank. One night he finds an old wooden mask which, when put on, transforms him into the green-skinned, yellow-clad Unstoppable Madman - a living cartoon who can pull mallets and machine guns out of thin air, with an insatiable and unstable personality. He wears the mask and goes to town to romance comedian Tina (Cameron Diaz, in her first major role), who is also a client of Ipkiss at the bank. She turns out to be dealing with bank-robbing gangsters, and so it becomes The Mask vs. Gangsters in a fairly standard three-act structure.
In terms of narrative, it's nothing to write home about. It pretty much follows the standard superhero movie template (pre-Marvel Studios, at least) beat for beat. What makes the film interesting is the concept of The Mask itself. Most superheroes, by and large, can be read as wish-fulfillment fantasies. The archetypal example is Spider-Man - a weak, nerdy kid turned tough and strong. Of course he must learn that these powers carry a burden; "With great power comes great responsibility," as Uncle Ben said. It's a moral story, the message is to do the right thing and help others - a positive message for children. That's whereThe maskis different.
The filmThe maskdoesn't remind me most of any other comic book movie, Jim Carrey comedy or anything — it's Jon Faverau's 1996 indie favoriteSwinger. It's partly an aesthetic thing. The mid-'90s saw a short-lived swing revival among 20-somethings in LA. Just as hipsters tend to use styles from the past for a fad, for '90s LA hipsters it was just big band music. It's not surprising that an indie drama or two would capture the scene, andSwingerhappened to be the one who did it (since Faverau and his buddies were into it when he wrote it as a struggling actor). What is incredible is thisThe mask, a big budget, made-by-committee studio image made it a few years ago too.
It's obviously just executives trying to capitalize on the fad of the time, but it's usually the case that these studio-sanctioned attempts at getting a scene onto screen end up hard-bombing (watch itTimes Square, trying to make a New WaveSaturday Night Fever, or the bizarre punk James Bond knockoffNever too young to die). But the swing elements inThe maskaren't the focus - it's amazing that it's just the setting for this great comic book movie. The swing elements actually fit the film's milieu quite well.
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Despite being set in the present, the whole film feels like it's back in the '30s or '40s when the Tex-Avery cartoon that influenced the film so much originally came out. Tina is a nightclub singer like no other; the general look of the gangsters is that of the idiots in a James Cagney film; and if you made the mask's yellow suit monochromatic, it would probably go well with Humphrey Bogart. It actually makes it better than Warren Beatty's intentionally retroDick TracyAdaptation that came out a few years earlier. And somehow that '40s influence makes it a perfect 1993 time capsule, too.
The connection toSwingerbut goes on.The maskis a film about guys in their 20s trying to date girls (or at least until the supernatural powers show up). Ipkiss' colleague Charlie (Richard Jeni) is the Vince Vaughn for his John Favereau, who is gobbling up tickets to Coco Bongo, a hot new club Ipkiss doesn't really want to go to. He's not the boy or party animal that Charlie wants him to be, but he ends up going about things anyway because of the social pressures that come with being that age. He has a solid job but can only afford a tiny, crappy apartment. I could describe a thousand other indie films and sitcoms and more (it could almost bePeep-Show), and it's not a million miles from my life now.
Okay, movies about post-adolescent men fidgeting for ten cents, but what's interesting is that this picks up a main theme from the original adult comic series. It's the notion that modern life is boring and frustrating and we'd do anything to escape it for a little excitement. The characters ofSwingerdon't want normal life, they want to be famous actors and that's why they moved to LA. In the original comic version, the mask turns Ipkiss from a pathetic loser into someone, even if that someone ends up being gunned down by the police. The film version mitigates much of the comic's frustration with the world and ultimately makes Ipkiss heroic, but the core concept is still there.
The Mask's true superpower isn't that he's invulnerable or super fast or that he can turn a balloon into a machine gun or swallow a giant bomb. His real strength is that he's really cool and funny and confident. And that the mask can make you - or anyone - cool.
And this is where it becomes a pretty obvious metaphor for alcohol.
Stanley Ipkiss is the archetypal nice guy who always finishes last. We find out early on when it's revealed he wrote in the local paper's torment aunt column that no women want the nice guy and he can't get a girlfriend. Reporter Peggy Brandt (Amy Yasbeck), who investigates the bank robberies and used to write the problem page on the site, tells Ipkiss that she has received hundreds of letters from women wanting to meet a man like him. But of course, because Stanley is so shy and awkward, he will never meet any of these women.
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What he needs is trust. And The Mask is a relentless ball of confidence. As soon as he puts it on, he's rushing to the club and in no time he's dancing with Cameron Diaz on stage. Like Parappa The Rapper, all he has to do is believe in himself. This is where the obvious comparisons to alcohol come into play. You can stand in the corner at parties and stare at your shoes and you won't meet anyone. But have a beer or ten and you'll be dancing on the tables and having a great time. Everyone loves you when you're drunk, or at least that's how it feels when you're drunk. You're funnier, you're louder, and you're a much better dancer. It makes you do the things you want to do, but you don't have the courage to do it. It makes you talk to the girl or guy you're too shy to talk to.The mask is essentially eight or nine pints, except it also gives you green skin and a yellow suit.
Not being the most subtle of movies, Ipkiss actually explains this to Tina when he's locked up in prison. She asks him how it works, and he replies, "It brings your innermost desires to life. When deep down you're a little repressed and hopelessly romantic, you kind of become a love-crazed wild man.” Just like alcohol, it gives you the confidence to be and do what you want to do. Importantly, the film notes that the character of the mask is not contained within the mask, but is an extension of the wearer. Everyone becomes different when wearing the mask.
Somewhat disappointingly, we only see three different people try on the mask during the film - and one of them is a dog - but we can clearly see the difference when someone other than Ipkiss is wearing it. That other person is Dorian (Peter Greene), an evil sadistic gangster and Tina's (ex)boyfriend. When he wears it, he has none of Ipkiss' humor and instead is just a merciless monster. In fact, when a bad person gets drunk, they only become more evil and violentNT.
But wearing the mask too often, like alcohol, is destructive and can be highly addictive and corrupting. Peter Parker has been blessed with a power he knows he must use for good. Ipkiss, on the other hand, knows he shouldn't be using the mask at all. When reporter Peggy Brandt starts asking him about it, he tells her, "It's crazy, I'm losing control. If I put this mask on, I can do anything. be anything My life is destroyed. Destroyed." Peggy calms him down and tells him, "You don't need it. You, Stanley Ipkiss, are all you ever need to be."
It's a story many addicts will tell you. They were shy but then they had a few drinks and it made them more outgoing and they made friends and had fun. So they drank more. But they found that to be the person people liked, they had to be drunk. And they couldn't have fun without drinking. They needed normality. So they kept drinking, despite what they're doing to their bodies and their relationships and the people around them. That's what happens.
Why do you ever want to be Stanley Ipkiss again after being The Mask? Although The Mask is vaguely heroic, she does bad things. He harasses the landlady of Ipkiss. He steals money from banks. He has the entire police force perform embarrassing dance numbers against their will. When Dorian threatens to kill Tina and blow up everyone in the club, he has to put the mask back on to save the day, but afterwards he knows he has to throw the mask away. Before doing so, he tries to get rid of it, but it keeps returning in an almost supernatural way and he eventually wears it again, not unlike an addict struggling with self-control.
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Unlike most comic book "superhero" moviesThe maskis not an origin story. It doesn't set in motion The Mask's ongoing adventures, it's a one-off story of a man tempted by a corrupting power, but with the strength to overcome it. The latermaskComic series tended to introduce a new carrier with each new arc, because that's how the plot worked. It's refreshing that the film doesn't really leave itself open to a sequel. Of course, it would have been easy enough for Ipkiss to come up with a crazy scenario to get back into the mask if a second happened (when he throws her into the sea, both his dog and Charlie chase after her). The splitmaskThe Saturday morning cartoon basically did that, turning Ipkiss into a recurring superhero. But the film tries to tell a one-time story, not start a franchise.
(We ignore the delayed sequelson of the mask, partly because it doesn't feature any of the original characters, but mostly because it's horrifying).
You may think I'm reading way too much into it and completely ignoring it and it's still a great movie. Jim Carrey is great fun and captures him in his early OTT period. The CGI is still fantastically imaginative and definitely holds up (it's actually a great example of using CGI relatively sparingly. At the time it was probably because it was still so expensive, but they let Carrey do most of the make- up and just built in CGI for the real Tex-Avery stuff. A lot of modern movies could learn from that). But underneath it all is the underlined pathos that really makes the film work. It's actually about something.
Next time: Why Milo is the biggest dog in movie history.
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