Film Reviews:

The Mask

(Charles Russell, US, 1994)

The place: Edge City, U.S.A., the time: unknown. A geeky bank teller accidentally discovers a crudely carved wooden mask. Beguiled by a strange light glittering within its grain, he is unable to resist a strange urge... to wear it. Immediately, it's alive, fusing itself to his features. It transforms the bank teller, externalising his inner self. As that inner self is obsessed by cartoons in the Tex Avery and Chuck Jones mould, he finds himself changing into a green faced, teeth chomping, eyeball popping, dumb joke cracking, rubber bodied dementoid, able to change wardrobe at will, and possessed of powers of mass hypnotism. After quickly dispensing with those people who make the teller's life a misery, The Mask announces himself a superhero. Following a robbery at the bank where he works, he attracts the unwelcome attention of both the police and the local Mafia, who were poised to rip off the bank themselves. Now the cops and the mob alike are hunting The Mask, and all he wants is to get a beautiful girl to love him for who he really is.

There are only two reasons to see The Mask: the special effects, and Jim Carrey. Only two reasons, but they're great ones. The ultra weird, ultra wild effects in which Tex Avery gets spliced into live action and results in a Roger Rabbit-style, anything's possible, anarchic clashing of humanity with animation are superb. Not always seamless, the effects nevertheless are super exciting, stretching, spinning, squashing and distorting Carrey's face and body into as many cartoony weird-outs as possible; acknowledging its Looney Toons sources with references including a Tasmanian Devil cushion, which crops up when Carrey goes into his Taz-like super spins. The effects appear only sporadically, presumably due to budget, but it doesn't matter. The film rockets along, powered by Carrey's high octane energy, equally enjoyable as nerdy loser or effects-twisted Mask. His performance is astounding, zipping from one schizoid personality to another, evoking TV and movie characters, re-inventing stock lines, mugging bits of half-remembered dialogue at breakneck speed, riffing madly through his repertoire of stock and cliché characters, redefining them with hilarious, even subversive intent. Charles (previously Chuck) Russell's direction echoes his star's performance, letting anything and everything be grist to his mill, from Joe Dantesque low and raked angles, to cod slow motion and Hitchcock appropriations, glitzy parties and dimly lit gangster hideouts, all dust motes floating through beams of murky diffused light.

When the chief baddie gets to wear the mask, the invention falters. Carrey tells us "If someone like him wears the mask, you'd better leave town', but the film fails to deliver. Instead, the baddie ends up as an extra from The Unnamable, with glow in the dark eyeballs, a lizard tongue but little else. The story is typical exploitation fodder, over-familiar from a million ill-advised straight-to-video titles. As such, it has some strengths, and another rewrite or two may even have provided a workable sub-text about the need to be yourself. Yet, in some ways its dislocated tone is just right, one more cut up to throw into the meaningless mix. The Mask is the true face of the 90's. It has no face, just a mask, made from the stolen pieces of a million predecessors stitched together and computer smoothed into something 'new'. From sampled hip hop beats to the endless computer-guided consciousness tampering of virtual reality, The Mask serves warning that the future is going to be a mad place. No resonance, just thrills. It's enough.

Adrian Horrocks