Jim Carrey's Latest Serious Role

There was a time when Jim CARREY appeared to have no higher calling than to be diabolically funny. He talked out of his butt in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, sold a dead parakeet to a child in Dumb and Dumber, and sang Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love like a psychopath on acid in The Cable Guy.

Jim Carrey's Latest Serious Role

There was a time when Jim CARREY appeared to have no higher calling than to be diabolically funny. He talked out of his butt in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, sold a dead parakeet to a child in Dumb and Dumber, and sang Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love like a psychopath on acid in The Cable Guy. Carrey seemed uncontainable. But The Cable Guy, which earned him his first superstar fee ($20 million) in 1996, was also one of his biggest flops. And ever since, he's tended to let his subversive instincts be upstaged by a sense of Hollywood mission - a dire need to be taken seriously as an actor, and above all, to be liked.

Over the past decade, the Canadian-born actor has been switching comic and tragic masks like Jekyll and Hyde on a bipolar bender, yo-yoing between innocuous romantic comedy (Bruce Almighty) and earnest Capraesque drama (The Majestic). On both fronts, he likes to play Mr. Nice Guy, a decent, ordinary man beset by desperate circumstances. There have been flashes of iconoclasm: he dipped into the old venom to sketch cartoon villains in a couple of kiddie flicks (How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events); he chased the quicksilver legend of comic Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999); and he even dished up a sampling platter of manic physical comedy amid the formula fare of Fun With Dick and Jane (2005).

But Carrey's newer comedies seem ill-designed to contain his mad genius. Besides, he seems more interested in being Jimmy Stewart than being Jerry Lewis. And in movies where he plays it straight - from The Truman Show to The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - he is typically cast as a sane, good-natured Everyman driven to paranoia by a Kafkaesque dilemma. Erasing his dark side, Carrey lets himself serve as blank slate, a template for the story.

His latest dramatic venture is The Number 23, a thriller by Joel Schumacher, who directed him in Batman Forever (1994). It's a picture Carrey feels he was fated to make. The actor has long been obsessed with the so-called "23 enigma," which he heard about from a friend in Canada: there are 23 male and female chromosomes in a child's DNA, blood takes 23 seconds to make a round trip through the human body, the earth's axis is on a tilt of 23.5 degrees, there are 23 letters in the Latin alphabet, Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times, Shakespeare was born and died on April 23 ... and on it goes. When a script called The Number 23, from novice screenwriter Fernley Phillips, landed in his lap, Carrey seized on the serendipity. But the resulting film is more pedestrian than it sounds, lacking the elegance of either The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine.

Carrey plays Walter, a dog-catcher who stumbles on a self-published murder mystery titled The Number 23. As he reads it, scenes echo his own past. To the consternation of his wife (Virginia Madsen) and his son, he becomes obsessed with the number, then terrified it will drive him to commit the murderous acts in the book. This is Stephen King territory. And we've seen versions of Walter's obsessive mania in films like The Shining, Secret Window and Memento. But although The Number 23 promises all manner of psychological intrigue, the riddle ends up congealing into a banal wad of backstory.

Once again, Carrey is straitjacketed by a formula script. It's as if his talent is at the mercy of Hollywood mediocrity, and the frustration is palpable. "I live in a place of divine dissatisfaction," he once said, "I don't think I'll be satisfied until I burst into a ball of light in front of the camera." The studios have yet to invent a formula for that.

Some of Carrey's most brilliant work, notably The Cable Guy, is his darkest, and least commercial. But these days his characters seem locked in a permanent quest for happiness, which has proved elusive to the actor off-screen. Twice divorced and living in L.A., Carrey, 45, has been battling depression with Prozac. And last fall, after two blockbuster comedy projects died on the vine - Used Guys and Ripley's Believe It Or Not - he fired his long-time agent. Recently Carrey announced he's written a "self-help style" book, promoting a philosophy that he explained by saying, "Most things we get upset about in life can be avoided if we just went in ready to be okay when things happen. 'Okay, I'm getting in the car right now, so chances are I could hit some traffic.' " Carrey might want to brace himself for gridlock with The Number 23.

Maclean's March 5, 2007