Friday, December 16, 2011

The Mask (1994)

The Movie: Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) is a decent guy with an unhappy life. He is a good man and tries to do the right thing. Unfortunately, he’s rather repressed and has a hard time standing up for himself. As a result, the world tends to use him as a combination doormat/kickball/chew toy; if it bothers to notice his existence at all.

Stanley’s life changes in a major way when a club outing with his best friend and coworker, Charlie (the late Richard Jeni), through a perfect storm of unfortunate events, becomes the worst night of his life. A brief flirtation with jumping off a bridge and ending it all lands Stanley into possession of a strange Scandinavian mask. Stanley quickly discovers that the mask has bizarre powers; that whenever he puts it on it changes him and brings out the emotions he has long repressed. Suddenly he is able to affect the world around him, stand up to those who bully him, and romance Tina (Cameron Diaz in her first starring role), the beautiful bank customer who is the woman of Stanley’s dreams.

Unfortunately, the freedom that the mask provides comes with its own set of problems. Whenever Stanley wears it, he loses restraint. When Stanley robs the bank where he works, he winds up making two enemies. One is police Detective Kellaway (Peter Riegert of Animal House), who immediately becomes suspicious of Stanley and is determined to catch him.

Worse, however, is Dorian Tyrell (Peter Greene of Pulp Fiction). A vicious and ruthless gangster, Dorian has been plotting to usurp the city’s main crime boss for some time. Unfortunately, funding for his plan revolves around a robbery on Stanley’s bank; and Stanley has beaten him to the punch. It also doesn’t help matters that Tina happens to be Dorian’s girlfriend. Dorian is determined to get revenge on Stanley; and he has big plans for the mask and its powers…

The Review:

This is incredible! With these powers I could be… A SUPER HERO!!! I could fight crime, protect the innocent, WORK FOR WORLD PEACE!!! But first…"
-Stanley Ipkiss

The Mask has long occupied one of the top spots on my list of all-time favorite movies. By “long” I mean since late junior high school, almost two decades at this point. I can think of three specific reasons for why this particular movie has held my enjoyment for so long. The first and probably biggest reason is, at its core, very simple; the Mask is a wish fulfillment movie that covers pretty much every major fantasy I have ever had that I would publicly admit to. What’s more; since I have no trouble identifying with the protagonist, this film is always a major morale boost for me when I have to deal with my own personal issues.

The second major reason I enjoy this movie so much came up in fairly recent years; I find the nature of the mask itself to be particularly fascinating. What is a mask? It is an object that hides what you truly are. However, the mask of this movie’s title, though we have to call it a “mask” for lack of a better term, performs the exact opposite function. Instead of hiding an individual’s true nature, this mask drags it to the surface.

Ironically, it’s the character who emphatically does not believe in the mask’s powers who provides the exposition for what it is. Psychologist Dr. Arthur Neuman (played by actor, comedian, author and right-wing shill Ben Stine) is first seen when Stanley catches him on a television talk show discussing his new book. He explains that we all metaphorically wear masks; that people employ socially acceptable fronts to hide who they truly are and what they truly desire. Later on, after Stanley discovers that whenever he wears the item in question said masks come right off, he goes to the doctor for help. Dr. Neuman doesn’t believe Stanley’s story about the mask, but his last words to Stanley are a far greater insight about it than he will ever know. When Stanley asks advice on whether he should meet Tina as either himself or the Mask; Dr. Neuman answers “go as yourself and as the Mask, because they are both one and the same beautiful person.”

The changes wrought on the two characters who wear the mask bear this out. When Stanley Ipkiss wears the mask, he turns into something that’s a combination of the charming seducer and a character out of the cartoons he loves so much. Also, because he does have a lot of pent up anger and frustration at the rest of the world, he tends to be obnoxious and/or destructive. Stanley conjures up weird, Loony Toon-style gag items such as giant mallets and tiny horns that can shatter glass. He bounces out of windows, swallows exploding dynamite, robs the bank where he works, and generally goes out of his way to annoy people.

However, Stanley is, at heart, a good man despite his pent up frustration; and his powers and actions tend to reflect this. In general, his actions are more intended to scare and annoy than they are to actually hurt others. As an example, in my favorite scene, Stanley finds himself cornered by a huge mob of police officers. His response; he summons up music, leads them into a huge dance number, and then escapes while they are distracted having fun. There are only two scenes where he goes outside this dynamic. However, the closing battle is open-ended enough that the villain might still be alive; just somewhere else. As for Stanley’s revenge on the car mechanics who take advantage of him; can any of us say we wouldn’t do the same if we were in his place?

Jim Carrey does wonderfully as Stanley Ipkiss. In fact, while the Mask came out at a time when the thought of Carrey doing serious roles was generally considered laughable; Carrey’s acting is probably what draws me the most. He has since proved that he can do a serious role, and rather well; but I have long thought that Jim Carrey is at his best as an ordinary guy finding himself in an extraordinary situation. Most people come to the Mask to see Jim Carrey as Stanley Ipkiss’ id run amuck, and he does to great in that role; but I come to it to see Carrey as Stanley Ipkiss.

The villain, Dorian Tyrell, provides the other extreme. On the surface, Dorian is a very handsome, charming man. However, underneath he is vicious and cruel. After seeing Tyrell in action, it’s no surprise that the mask turns him into something out of a horror movie, with powers to match. Overall, I think that Greene provides us with a good villain for us to boo and cheer his downfall.

The third and final reason why I love the Mask so much is that it’s just a fun and well made movie. The rest of the cast and characters are also, overall, wonderful. This is Cameron Diaz’s first movie role, and it’s easy to why she got to where she is today. There’s also a clever little bit of role-reversal with the two female characters, where the “femme fatale” actually turns out to be a decent lady, while the “good girl” is the one who winds up stabbing Stanley in the back. Jeni provides a fun and likable character as Stanley’s best friend; Charlie obviously does care about Stanley, but he tends to be oblivious to what’s going on. Detective Kellaway and his rather clueless partner, Doyle, provide a fun humorist/straight man team. And finally there’s Milo, Stanley’s loyal dog; who is at least as intelligent as his master, and who gets to briefly wear the mask himself.

The setting for the movie is also a lot of fun. Edge City is a combination of a contemporary city and the archetypal Naked City of noir. There are lots of fun little anachronistic touches, such as Stanley’s zoot suit when he puts on the mask, that harken back to that genre. Along with that is the music; the soundtrack is big band swing, and all by itself is worth seeing this movie for.

In the end, the Mask is a fun little wish fulfillment fantasy. It has a good cast, a fun storyline, great dialogue, and a few scenes that have to be seen to be believed. I revere Jim Carry for this movie alone.

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