Sometimes, the problem with casting Jim Carrey is that you can never tell when he’s acting at acting, acting, or just being Jim Carrey. There are so many layers of Carrey seething under the surface of his shape-shifting fizzog, it can be difficult to know which you’re meant to focus on.
But given the story, you can see where the writers of Bad Santa were going with their directorial debut, a comic caper telling the true-life tale of grifter Steven Jay Russell, currently serving a 144-year stretch for astonishing naughtiness.
Carrey channels his limitless energy into Russell’s kaleidoscopic life, bursting from the closet of a sham hetero-marriage into a car-crash of flamboyant excess. A series of audacious scams fund his lavish tastes (“Being gay is expensive”), resulting in jailhouse love affairs and a revolving door in and out of the clink via brazen, often hilarious escapes.
The Mask does his best with contradictory material in a mesmerising identity-crisis mash-up that’s part Patrick Bateman, part Forrest Gump. But as he hoodwinks his way from courtroom to boardroom in nerve-wracking displays of brassballed chutzpah, you wonder what it would have been like if he’d been reined in a bit more. That’s because there’s too much story, character and Carrey to contain in one film.
One side effect is that Ewan McGregor – as Russell’s titular love-toy – is mostly reduced to a cipher. It also disappoints that, after Russell’s last and most elaborate con, the filmmakers default to Hollywood life-lesson No.1 (“Be Yourself”). Which, for a movie that’s partly a celebration of the exact opposite, feels a mite insincere. Though maybe that was the point all along…
It’s hard to emotionally connect with a film that ultimately proves as glib and evasive as its protagonist. But hugely entertaining in fits and starts, thanks to the flash and sass of Carrey’s catch-me-if-you-can antics.