The Gospel According to Jim Carrey

I do not think the God of Christianity is particularly religious. If Jesus is right, God created all of life, not just the narrowly religious bits. So if God is interested in us, God doesn’t have to wait till we get religious. God can communicate with us many ways—through friends, books, school, experiences . . . and even movies. Movies often touch us in deep ways—and whenever we are touched deeply, that may be a signal that God is trying to get through to us.

For example, in many of the movies of Jim Carrey, I am struck by how often issues of personhood crop up, question such as: Who am I? Am I good or bad?  Who really knows me? Who am I meant to be? I was beginning to reflect on this on 2002, when what was then a new Carrey movie began to be advertised, Me, Myself and Irene, and I thought: “If that’s not identity, what is? Bingo!”

To me, questions of identity are basically spiritual questions, in the sense that they very quickly lead us to questions of God, and our purpose of life.

What I want to do then is to look at some of the themes that Jim Carrey tackles, and then show how they relate to Christian spirituality.

The problem:

In Man on Moon (1999), Carrey plays the comedian Andy Kaufman. The amazing thing about this movie is that nothing is what it seems. Every time you think you have got something figured out, the movie pulls the rug from beneath your feet. This is especially true for the figure of Andy: you are never quite sure who or what he is. Every time you think you know, he does something to surprise you. The confusion begins with the movie’s opening credits, where he appears first as a very shy person, then a very extroverted person, then tells us the movie will be full of interesting characters—like the ones he is playing at this very moment!

Later on, he goes to a university to speak to the students, and announces, “For the very first time, I’m going to reveal the real me” (which tells you he knows this is an issue). But he does not: instead, he reads F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby out loud, from beginning to end. What does this have to do with revealing the “real” Andy Kaufmann? Is he revealed—or disguised—by the reading of the book? We are left confused. We discover along the way that Kaufman has an alter ego called Tony Clifton, whose theme song is, “I gotta be me.” But who is the “me” he has to be? Does he really exist? This is still a question right up to the very last frame of the movie.

Another way we experience the problem of identity comes out in The Mask (1995) Carrey plays the introverted bank employee, Stanley Ipkiss, who finds an ancient mask. When he puts it on, he becomes a totally different person: animated, impetuous, and crazy. What’s going on? He goes to see a psychologist to try and understand himself, and we learn that the psychologist has written a book called, The Masks We Wear.

This suggests that we are meant to think of the mask that Stanley wears as a metaphor. We hide what is really inside and put on a mask for public consumption. For most people, of course, what the mask conveys is a socially acceptable, quiet, law-abiding person. The person inside might cause chaos if we let them out!

And, even worse, who would love the person we are inside? In 1969, Catholic author John Powell wrote a book called Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? He recounts that, when he told someone he was writing a book with this title, they immediately responded by saying, “Because if I tell you who I am, and you don’t like it, I don’t have anything else.” That is why we like to have masks, and are reluctant to drop them. We need to protect what is inside.

For Stanley, the opposite is true: putting on the mask gives him the opportunity to become wild, even manic, and he really doesn’t care who likes him or not. In his case, the quiet public persona actually seems to be the more truthful one. Stanley says he is a wild romantic, but that side of him only comes out when he puts on the mask. But that is when Tina (Carmen Diaz) sees the man who lives inside the mask, and accepts the “real” Stanley.

Jim Carrey is obviously aware of this tension between the public and the private persona, and our sensitivity about letting the inside be seen too often. He said, in an interview in Flare magazine in July 1998:
My movies have been ways for people to escape life. . . .The scary thing is that because you’re letting little glimpses of your true self come out, if it’s rejected, it’s actually you that’s being rejected and not the character you’ve created.

In Cable Guy (1996), the mask is very thin, and what is underneath is not pleasant. Indeed, the movie is hardly a comedy: some people find it very scary. Chip Douglas (Carrey) is an emotional black hole, frequently left by his mother to be raised by TV. As a result, he does not know how to relate to anyone, and he is desperate for friendship. In the movie, his latest victim is Steve (Matthew Broderick), whom he tries to force into being his friend.  But Chip does not know how to be a friend: he manipulates, threatens, and bribes. C.S.Lewis once said:

Friends are not primarily absorbed in each other. It is when we are doing things together that friendship springs up—painting, sailing ships, praying, philosophizing, fighting shoulder to shoulder. Friends look in the same direction.

But for Chip, friendship is basically about him. He has almost nothing in common with Steve; they share few interests. He simply wants a friend to fill the emptiness inside, and (surprise) it doesn’t work. Steve does not want to be used in this way. He says, “We’re not friends. I don’t even know you.” 

On one level, what Chip wants is reasonable: we all need affection, acceptance, and friendship. One again, the songs in the movie give us an insight into what is really going on. Thus, at a karaoke party, Chip sings “Don’t you want somebody to love? I’d like somebody to love. It’s hard to find somebody to love.” That is the story of Chip’s life. So how do we find the love, acceptance, friendship we need?  The movie raises the question, but gives us no answer, except that Chip’s way is not the way! Even at the end, he still has not learned, and the cycle begins over again.

The movie Me, Myself and Irene (2002) returns to the theme of the contrast between inside and outside. Charlie Baileygates (Carrey) is a cop on Rhode Island. But he is too nice for his own good, and, as a result, people walk all over him. He asks one man to move his car, which is illegally parked. The man throws Charlie his keys, and tells him to move it himself. Charlie obliges without a murmur. He is incapable of expressing his own opinion, or of showing anger. Rather, as one character says when the crisis comes, he “locks it all away.” Finally, the suppressed sides of his personality come out as a new, quite nasty character called Hank. Charlie apparently now has a split personality. (The makers of the movie got in trouble with the Schizophrenia Society for their cheap parody of schizophrenia.) The two characters—Hank and Charlie—begin to fight.

When he finally admits he’s got a problem, Charlie asks about Hank: “How did he get in?” and the answer is: “You created him by not dealing with your problems. You’ve been avoiding confrontation, but this guy inside, Hank, he doesn’t. The doctors feel you’ve created this character out of necessity. You never stick up for yourself.” Once again, we see different, conflicting parts of a personality: how can they co-exist? How can Charlie (or indeed any one of us) be a whole person?

There are also two sides to Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar (1997). This time, Carrey plays a lawyer (Fletcher Reede) who is a compulsive liar. The movie begins with children in class talking about their parents. Reede’s son Max says, “My father’s a liar.” The teacher corrects him: “You mean a lawyer.” Max replies, “No, I mean a liar.” And, of course, Max is right.

Fletcher lies in order to make life easier for himself. In other words, his lying is a mark of how self-centred he is: he twists the truth to suit his comfort and convenience. (Early on, he says he ran out of gas when he was late to pick up son.) Max, naturally enough, is fed up, and makes an unusual wish at his birthday party—that his father be forced to tell the truth. His wish, naturally, comes true.

Telling the truth, however, gets Fletcher into all sorts of new trouble, because now he can’t be so self-centred. By the end, he’s learned his lesson. He even quotes Jesus: “the truth shall set you free” and he concludes that “This truth stuff is pretty cool.”

Here then are some of the problems Jim raises around issues of personhood:
Who is the “real” me? (Man on the Moon)
How can I connect the inside and the outside?  (Me, Myself and Irene)
How can I get people to like me? (Cable Guy)
Will people like me if they really know me? (The Mask)
How does the real me relate to the truth? (Liar, Liar)
Some hints of an answer:

I would argue that Jim Carrey’s movies offer at least four ways forward: all four resonate with Christian spirituality. Some of the movies we have already looked at offer clues to an answer; other answers are found in other Carrey movies.

1: Man on Moon (1999)

There is a point in the movie where Andy has been particularly obnoxious. He wrestles with women, and he wins. He insults people. He goes on David Letterman, and throws coffee and swears at his host. He is voted off Saturday Night Live.  And finally he is expelled from the Eastern meditation group TM, because he is giving them a bad image.

He goes back to his apartment and lies on the bed brooding. His girlfriend Lynn (Courtney Love) arrives with Haagen-Dazs ice cream for him, and asks what the matter is. “I’m a bad person,” he confesses. “No, you’re not,” she argues. “You’re just a complicated person.” He replies, “You don’t know the real me.” Then she says gently, “There is no real you.” Immediately he asks her to move in with him. What is the connection? Why does her strange statement lead to his invitation? It sounds like a non sequitur. My guess is that he is deeply touched by the fact that Lynn loves him in spite of her insight that there is no “real me.” He does not want to lose this rare gift of a person who sees inside him, to the emptiness he knows is there, and loves him anyway. That is real love, the ability to love someone when every mask is removed.

One of the chief things that Jesus was known for when he was on earth was accepting people for who they were. It made no difference who a person was, how marginalized, how much of an outsider or a “sinner” they were. Jesus could know everything about you and still be your friend, even if nobody else wanted anything to do with you.  Christians say he is still that way, that he knows the worst about them, and still goes on loving.
2. The Majestic (2002)

Here Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a movie script writer. The story is set in the 50’s, at the time of the McCarthy trials, when anyone suspected of Communist sympathies was being put on trial before the Committee on un-American Activities.

Near the start of the movie, Appleton has an accident and loses his memory. He wanders into a little nearby town where people think he is Luke, a boy from the town who was killed in Second World War.  One man claims him as his son. The woman who was Luke’s fiancée decides it is probably him. Since Appleton can remember nothing, he wonders whether maybe is Luke. But not everybody believes it. So who is he really?

By the end, Appleton’s memory comes back, and he has to go and face his trial on charges of being a Communist sympathizer. His lawyer advises him to admit to the charges, stupid though they are, and to incriminate others. That is the easy way out, and he is inclined to take it. But before he leaves town, he visits the grave of Luke, and there is Adele, Luke’s fiancée, who has finally accepted that the real Luke is dead after all. Adele criticises Appleton for not taking a stand for truth and justice, as Luke would have done. Luke died for his country, after all, and here is Appleton not willing even to stand up for himself. Appleton is moved Adele’s angry challenge. In the end, he defies the committee and becomes a hero himself.

What’s happened? He has not only recovered the person he used to be. He is actually becoming someone different, a much finer person, with integrity and idealism he lacked at the beginning. And how has that happened? By modeling himself on someone admirable. 

Christians are followers of Jesus. They are aware of their weaknesses and failings. But in Jesus they see someone they want to be like—compassionate, passionate for truth and justice, with integrity that is willing to suffer for what is right. And their belief is that, as they open themselves to the Spirit of Jesus, little by little he shapes that same kind of character in them. We all need models—who better than Jesus, a human being as human beings were created to be?
3. The Truman Show (1998)

Truman is the star of an all-day soap opera. The only trouble is, he doesn’t know it. Gradually, as the movie unfolds, he gets clues that something is wrong in his world. Again, here is the theme of identity and personhood: Who is Truman? Who is the true Truman? (His name is significant.) Either he is the only real person (since all the others are actors) or he is the only unreal person (since everyone else lives in the “real world” and knows what is going on).

However, there is one person who enters his artificial world from the outside, because she cares about him and wants to tell him the truth about life: her name is Lauren. She takes him to the beach, hopefully outside the range of the omnipresent TV cameras, and tries to tell him that his whole world is artificial, and that he needs to escape. Unfortunately, before she can say much, another actor drives up, claiming to be her father and insisting on taking her “home.”

From that point on, Truman’s goal is to find a way out of his world, to stop playing a part, and to find Lauren and the “real world.” 

Again, Lauren is a bit like Jesus: Christians believe that Jesus too came from outside our space-time continuum into our artificial world, and said Hey, you want to be real in a real world? Follow me, and I’ll take you there.
4. Bruce Almighty (2003)

In this movie Carrey plays Bruce, a TV reporter whose life is falling apart. He complains to his girlfriend Grace (Jennifer Aniston) that it is all God’s fault. So God calls him on his cell phone and summons him to a meeting. God (Morgan Freeman) says basically, “You think it’s easy being God? You try.” And so, for a week, Bruce has all the powers of God. There are only two conditions: he can’t tell anyone that he is God, and he has to respect people’s freewill.

Half the fun of the movie of course comes from watching Bruce fool around with his supernatural powers, parting the red sea of his tomato soup, and so on. But there is a serious side to his experiments, which is, of course, his learning that he is not smart enough to be God, and too selfish to be God.

As you would expect, by the end he is learning his lesson and becoming a much nicer person. He is even willing to give up Grace if that is best for her, and he tries to think of Grace as God thinks of her. God says to Bruce, “You want her back?” and Bruce, says, after a moment’s hesitation, “No, I want her to be happy, whatever that means . . . To meet someone who sees her as I see her now . . . through your eyes.”

As a result, ironically enough, once he stops trying to play God, this unselfish love actually makes him more like God in character. Instead of being a poor imitation of God he becomes a decent human being with God-like qualities, in a harmonious relationship with God.

And I guess that is the ultimate parallel with Jesus in Jim Carrey’s movies: that Christians believe he put us in touch with God in a unique way, so that all the different parts of our personality can come together in that relationship, and we can become the person God made us to be. 

A friend of mine works in a university writing centre. She was recently advising a student who was writing an essay about the self, and it became obvious that for the student this was much more than an academic exercise. She said, I’m different people in different situations: I begin to wonder, is there a real me? Is there some way all these fragmented selves can be united? And my friend, who’s a Christian, said very gently, well, for me all the pieces come together in my relationship with Jesus, who made me and knows me through and through, and loves me no matter what.

And I guess that ultimately is the good news that Jesus has for Jim.  And for all of us.

Brock University, 2004