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Liar Liar Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 September 2007

Image For some time, Jim Carrey was often described as a Jerry Lewis imitator run amok, but what he does in “Liar Liar,” Lewis never tried at all. The movie is a blend of a heartwarming—but not sentimental—family story and a raucous slapstick comedy. Lewis tried that sort of thing often enough, but when he did, he tried for Chaplinesque pathos: we were supposed to feel sorry for his characters.

Carrey never asks us to pity his characters; either they're blithely above it all, like Ace Ventura or, in a different way, his nincompoop in "Dumb and Dumber," or they've dug the holes for themselves, as in "The Cable Guy" and now "Liar Liar." From this point on, he varied his movies and characters even more, from “The Truman Show” to “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (together, his two best movies and performances), makeup and effects-laden extravaganzas like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” (both of those were unfortunate), to outright dramas, like “Man on the Moon” and this year’s “The Number 23.” He didn’t avoid the wild comedies, either, though they were uneven: “Me, Myself and Irene,” “Bruce Almighty.” Then there was “Fun with Dick and Jane,” which scrambled all his approaches together. His characters may ultimately be likable, but he plays all these roles without a trace of sentimental appeal. In “Liar Liar,” he plays a living embodiment of the favorite form of humor of the 1990s: the lawyer joke--what would happen if a lawyer was unable to lie? But Carrey and the filmmakers take this old premise down new paths.

In "Liar Liar," he was reunited with Tom Shadyac, who directed the first "Ace Ventura" movie, and was helped by an intelligent script by Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur. Carrey is Fletcher Reede, an up-and-coming attorney in a major Los Angeles firm. He's slick, smug and sleek, on his way up and overly sure of himself. We can see he's become corrupted even though he doesn't know it; his shrewd secretary Greta (Anne Haney, very good) wouldn't be as loyal to an unmitigated jerk. And his ex-wife Audrey (Maura Tierney) is still a little stuck on him. But the person who has the most faith in Fletcher is his five-year-old son Max (Justin Cooper), but his loyalty is crumbling fast, since his beloved dad can't seem to show up on time for anything involving Max. At his firm, Fletcher is assigned to handle the property settlement in an acrimonious divorce; his client is ditzy Samantha Cole (Jennifer Tilly), who, though she signed a restrictive pre-nuptial agreement, is determined to fleece her husband for all she can get. He tossed her out when he found out she was having an affair, and he wants custody of their young children. Fletcher works up a good head of lawyerly outrage: why, she's being cut off for just a single act of indiscretion! "Seven," Samantha interrupts. Fletcher halts for a moment. "Seven?" "Seven single acts of indiscretion," Samantha admits. But a little thing like having a greedy, unfaithful bimbo for a client doesn't stop Fletcher's flights of fancy, and he is ready to go into court the next day. After, of course, he hops into the sack with his horny superior Miranda (Amanda Donohoe, involved in L.A. law again). This means he has to miss Max's birthday party, but hey, it's all in a day's work.

At the party, when the disillusioned little boy blows out his birthday candles, he wishes that his father would tell the truth, just for one day. And the wish comes true: for 24 hours, Fletcher absolutely cannot possibly tell a lie, no matter how hard he tries. It starts with Miranda; when she asks how she was in bed, he truthfully responds “I’ve had better.” This has consequences.

Being Jim Carrey, his efforts to lie are magnificently visible. His face distorts, his voice sputters, his eyes practically spin in their sockets, but he just cannot conjure up anything but the truth, even when he's talking to himself. He tries to declare a blue pen red; his inability to describe it as anything but blue leads to slapstick paroxysms.

This soon presents a hell of a lot of problems: the loyal Greta flees, Miranda sees a way to get revenge, and Fletcher still has to go to court on Samantha Cole's case. Meanwhile, Audrey is confronted with another problem (in additionj to frantinc phone calls from Fletcher): her new boyfriend, Jerry (Cary Elwes), proposes to her, inviting her and Max to move to Boston with him on his new job. Audrey keeps hoping that the Fletcher she married is still somewhere inside the hotshot lawyer, but she's weary of his disappointing Max time and again.

Usually, in a movie with this kind of family setup, the husband and wife are right for one another, so the emphasis is on whether or not they will get back together. The third, or Ralph Bellamy, corner of the triangle--Jerry, in this case—is usually shown to be a worthless lunk . But "Liar Liar" is surprisingly honest, and tightly focused on the relationship between Fletcher and Max. Jerry is such a nice guy even Fletcher likes him—he's just a little dull, but he's genuinely in love with Audrey, and very fond of Max.

The movie is really about how telling the truth forces Fletcher to re-examine himself and his relationship with his son. It's not an attack on the profession of lawyers, only on how some lawyers practice it, and is about how a father finally realizes just how much his son means to him. By sticking to such human issues, "Liar Liar" becomes more than just a wild comedy, and was the first indication that Carrey's comic persona was far more flexible than most of us had hitherto imagined.

In his comedies, Carrey was mostly been a comic of delivery and facial expressions—of which Carrey seems to have more than any twelve other actors. But he's now getting into physical slapstick as well, as if he's been alternately studying the Three Stooges and Jackie Chan. When he gets really wound up in "Liar Liar," Carrey caroms off walls, flies through doors feet first, and seemingly turns corners in mid-air. You can't imagine how he could have done this stuff for more than a couple of takes.

Director Tom Shadyac made "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective" much more interesting than I suspect the script suggested, and "The Nutty Professor" was Eddie Murphy's best movie in many years. Since “Liar Liar,” Shadyac has been busier as a producer than as a director; he did get back together with Carrey for “Bruce Almighty,” but his other films have been weak: “Patch Adams,” “Dragonfly,” this year’s “Evan Almighty.”

In most comedies-with-heart, there's the comedy, then there's the heart, then there's the comedy, etc. But "Liar Liar" integrates them; the wild climax at an airport comes about because Fletcher is so frantic over the possibility of losing Max. Again and again, events in the film hinge on the central idea: Fletcher's a nice guy who's let his life get away from him. Having to tell the truth is a fantasy element, to be sure, but again, while it's hilarious to see rubber-faced Jim struggle to lie, it is really a reflection of what the movie is truly about: Fletcher rediscovering himself.

Although Carrey is basically the whole show, his supporting cast is particularly good. Maura Tierney (remember her from "NewsRadio?") brings a wry understanding and many dimensions to the role of his wife. Justin Cooper is a cute kid, and Jennifer Tilly is delightful as the scheming, airheaded Samantha (though she's been better in roles like this before). Thanks to the understanding script, what could have been just a throwaway sub-Ralph Bellamy role, Cary Elwes actually has something to do as the kind, but boring, Jerry. Cooper and Tierney continue to work, mostly in television; she was a regular on “E.R.” for several years.

The extras on the disc are standard. A “making-of” features several talking heads and a lot of funny behind-the-scenes footage of Carrey cracking up onlookers. The outtakes are relatively few; the best were already in the film, under the end credits. Shadyak’s commentary track is standard for such things. The lengthy deleted scene was intended as the opening of the film, as Fletcher convinces a jury to free his obviously-guilty client through the use of lies, distortion and appeals to sentiment. It’s a good scene, but removing it was the right decision: the movie just doesn’t need it.

There’s not much point in releasing this film in high definition, other than that all the studios now seem convinced that EVERYthing should be released this way. There are no scenes enhanced or even helped a little by the increase in detail, though a few shots of sun-dappled suburban Los Angeles streets are mildly attractive. If you want to own the film, save the few extra bucks the HD DVD costs, and buy the one in standard definition.

“Liar Liar" is a bright, funny, fast-paced movie that runs less than an hour and a half, but it's full of well-realized characters, it sets up a theme and plays it out with intelligence and imagination, and it gives Jim Carrey a simply wonderful role. What more could you ask of a studio movie?

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