Jim Carrey's 20 best film performances – ranked!

The rubber-faced funnyman made Ace Ventura, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber in the same year. But as he prepares to publish his memoirs, we ask: was that as good as it got?

20. The Number 23 (2007)

By and large, Jim Carrey either makes good films or very, very bad films. The latter includes mush such as The Majestic, comedic misfires such as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and such dreary genre misfires as Dark Crimes. But it also includes The Number 23, a thriller in which Carrey becomes obsessed with a book that he forgot he wrote, about the number 23. The book was written by a man named Topsy Kretts. Say it out loud. That’s right: it sounds like “Top Secrets”. The Number 23 is a terrible film, but you can watch the heck out of it drunk.

19. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Have you ever wondered why no one makes live-action Dr Seuss adaptations any more? It is primarily because the Seuss estate hated Mike Myers’s The Cat in the Hat so much that they banned them. But the weird horniness of Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas might also be to blame. During the film. we learn that the Grinch’s parents were swingers, see the Grinch naked and discover that Christine Baranski really, really wants to have sex with the Grinch. The good doctor would have been appalled.

18. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

Slightly better was Carrey’s adaptation of Daniel Handler’s kids’ novels. As the villainous Count Olaf, Carrey is just as buried under prosthetics as he was in The Grinch, but the subject matter is more fitting for his sensibilities. It is dark and occasionally genuinely scary, and Carrey’s ad-libs aren’t nearly as overt. If it wasn’t for the subsequent Netflix series, which was thorough enough to put the failures of this film into relief, this would be much higher on the list.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Photograph: Moviestore/REX

17. Yes Man (2008)

By 2008, Carrey’s shtick was just starting to wear off. Had he made Yes Man a decade earlier, there is a good chance that it would have ranked among his best. But there is a palpable exhaustion to Carrey’s performance here, as if he is trying to summon a mania that simply isn’t there any more. Couple this with the almost 20-year age difference between him and Zooey Deschanel’s love interest and you end up with a strange curate’s egg of a film.

16. Mr Popper’s Penguins (2011)

You could argue that this is the one true hidden gem in Carrey’s filmography. Murdered by its own marketing strategy – the trailer, featuring Carrey hoofing around with some CGI penguins, made it look aggressively stupid – the film is actually a sweet meditation on parental disappointment. It is not exactly a classic, but it is much more thoughtful than anyone gave it credit for at the time.

15. The Mask (1994)

The impact of Carrey’s breakthrough year – in which he also released Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber – was so seismic that people tend to forget how soggy and formless The Mask is. Although Carrey gives it everything (director Chuck Russell claims that his rubbery face was worth a million dollars in special effects), the film itself is essentially a loose collection of catchphrases where a plot should be.

14. Batman Forever (1995)

Carrey’s Riddler is the sole redeeming feature of this lurid disappointment – his mania is underpinned by a tangible sense of hurt – and this might be why he found himself on the outs with his co-stars. Tommy Lee Jones, in particular, was so unsettled by Carrey’s constant scene-stealing that, when he ran into Carrey at a restaurant during filming, he could only muster the immortal line “I cannot sanction your buffoonery” by way of a greeting.

13. Me, Myself & Irene (2000)

In which Carrey plays a man with multiple personalities. One is a nice guy driven to the end of his tether by his wife’s insistence on cheating on him with a black dwarf, the other is essentially Clint Eastwood. This seems like a weird criticism of a Carrey film, but Me, Myself & Irene is far too broad. It came at a point where the Farrelly brothers were starting to run out of gross-out targets, and Carrey had to wildly overcompensate as a result.

With Rodrigo Santoro in I Love You Phillip Morris, 2000.
With Rodrigo Santoro in I Love You Phillip Morris, 2000. Photograph: Publicity image from film company

12. I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

Carrey plays Steven Jay Russell, a real-life conman who falls in love with his cellmate. The film had a difficult release, as distributors and audiences were apparently put off by its explicit gay content, but it is well worth a rewatch. It is sweet, funny and truly heartbreaking in places, and Carrey finds exactly the balance between humour and pathos.

11. Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

The film where the world got Carrey back. For years he had been lost in a fog – focusing on art and bad drama and his increasingly off-putting public persona – but everything snapped back together for Sonic the Hedgehog. His Dr Robotnik swings for the fences in the same way that classic-era Carrey would, loud and overt and monomaniacal, with a dance interlude that would be completely unnecessary were it not the best part of the entire film. It is still a Sonic the Hedgehog movie, so will never be considered one of the greats, but watching Carrey muck around is like watching a man fall in love with his talent all over again. A sequel has already been greenlit.

10. Man on the Moon (1999)

The film that won Carrey his second Golden Globe was an undeniable passion project. By playing Andy Kaufman, a groundbreaking and often misunderstood comedian, Carrey was explicitly drawing a line between them. And when it works, it works magnificently; the scenes where Carrey gets to play Kaufman in full flight are giddy with joy. However, the connective tissue is soggy biographical TV movie fare, which is what hobbles it in the long run.

9. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)

More interesting is the behind-the-scenes documentary that came out 18 years later. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is a fascinating glimpse of what star power looks like when it curdles beyond repair. A heavily bearded Carrey, in the midst of his unsettling “I don’t exist” phase, recounts the pure hell he put Milos Forman through on set: only ever appearing in character as Kaufman, trespassing in Steven Spielberg’s office, getting in real fights with cast members. By the time Carrey channels Kaufman’s spirit to console Kaufman’s orphaned daughter, you might altogether lose your stomach for the film. But it is a wonderful insight into the workings of high celebrity nonetheless.

8. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)

It is hard to measure the impact of Ace Ventura from a two-and-a-half decade remove. Although it hasn’t aged at all well, thanks to some questionable transsexual jokes towards the end, the film is a haymaker of a personal thesis statement. Rarely does someone as unknown as Carrey latch on to a leading role with such utter dedication. Every single thing he does in this film – every line, every gesture, every twitch – is in dogged pursuit of a laugh. He attacks this film and leaves it crumpled on the floor. There are moments that are almost avant garde, such is Carrey’s utter hunger to milk every last ounce of humour. At the time, even if you hated it, it was impossible to leave the cinema without thinking that you had watched a star being born.

7. Bruce Almighty (2003)

In 2020, a film that asked the question “What would Jim Carrey be like as God?” would be the most miserable thing in the world, but 2003 was a more optimistic time. Bruce Almighty is a gleaming, finely honed comedy that essentially removes all physical constraints from Carrey’s performance. He lassos the moon and brings it closer to him. He parts a soup, Moses-style. He causes Steve Carell to speak in tongues. Yes, there is a gloopy spiritualism that threatens to overwhelm the film towards the climax, but it remains one of the best vehicles for Carrey’s buffoonery.

6. Dumb and Dumber (1994)

From this point onwards, every film is a classic. If Ace Ventura saw Jim Carrey kicking the door open, Dumb and Dumber absolutely nailed it to the wall. This is a truly stupid film in the best possible way; a road trip populated solely by total idiots. The things that Carrey does with a ketchup bottle alone in this film could fill entire dissertations. Despite this, what keeps the film watchable is the look of petrified delight in Jeff Daniels’s eyes throughout, as he tries to keep up with Carrey. It is as if he has accidentally caught his trousers on a speeding train. Dumb and Dumber was made for $17m. Such was its colossal success that, two years later, Carrey would be commanding pay cheques bigger than that.

5. Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995)

There is one scene in this film that deserves to be placed in a museum, so that future generations can kneel before it. It is Buster Keaton multiplied by Harold Lloyd, pushed through a particle collider of Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis. It is a scene of total, incredible, comic dedication. It is, of course, the scene where Carrey strips naked and crawls out of a rhinoceros’s anus. I am not exaggerating here. Go and watch it now. Look at the faces. Listen to the noises. It’s like something from a David Lynch film. It is perfect.

4. The Cable Guy (1996)

Carrey received $20m for this role, and the noise surrounding his fee – especially since it came just two short years after his breakthrough – did not help The Cable Guy at all. Expectations were so enormous that audiences flocked to cinemas expecting another Dumb and Dumber. What they got, however, was a lot darker and knottier. There are times when The Cable Guy plays more like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle than a traditional comedy. But while the grotesquely stalkerish nature of Carrey’s character might have startled audiences at the time, this has since matured into one of his best films. The intensity of Ace Ventura is still there, but Carrey keeps finding new places to put it. This was not just his most lucrative role to date, but also his most artistically important.

Liar Liar, 1997.
Liar Liar, 1997. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

3. The Truman Show (1998)

This is the film where everything went right. The Truman Show has a crackerjack logline – a man realises that he has spent his life on a TV set as the unwitting star of a long-running series and tries to break free – an honest, sympathetic script that still allows space for Carrey to do his thing, and fastidiously unshowy direction. You sense that Carrey has always longed for a Groundhog Day; a high-concept movie packed with universal truths that allows him to be sincere and zany in equal measure. The Truman Show is not quite there, but it comes awfully close at times.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Until this point, every Carrey performance had been an assault; either through physical comedy or sledgehammer sincerity, they grabbed you by the throat and refused to let you go. But here, for the first time, we saw Carrey without the affectations. He is small here, almost to the point of not existing, which is fitting since the real star of this movie is Michel Gondry’s kaleidoscope of melancholic whimsy, as written by Charlie Kaufman. Until this point Carrey was a classic overachiever, spending a decade showing us what he could do. Here, he showed you what happened when he didn’t do anything at all. Annoyingly, it was just as good.

1. Liar Liar (1997)

Now, hear me out. Liar Liar might not have the dramatic heft of a Truman Show or an Eternal Sunset. And it might not have the all-out laser focus of Dumb and Dumber or Ace Ventura. But it is nevertheless Carrey’s best film. Imagine another actor trying to do what Carrey does here, essentially spending an hour and a half possessed by a spirit that prevents him from lying. Imagine how flat and uninteresting it would be. Now, go back and watch Liar Liar. Watch Carrey writhe and contort in the fruitless pursuit of a lie. Watch it take over his entire body. Better yet, this film gave him a family for the first time, rooting his mania in something identifiable. At this stage in his career, Carrey was pumping out films at a prodigious rate – this was his seventh in three years – and he was figuring out new moves at every turn. In Liar Liar, he figured out the impossible: how to be a human being.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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