Steven Spielberg has made the most important film of his lifetime, Tom Hanks has taken on the most important role of his career, and Robin Williams makes a great housekeeper. So what's a cowlicked finder of lost dolphins doing at the top of the box-office tallies two weeks in a row?
Since its release Feb. 4, the manically lowbrow comedy "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" has taken in $24.6 million, and doesn't show any sign of slowing down. The Morgan Creek film, directed by first-timer Tom Shadyac, has made an instant movie star out of comedian Jim Carrey, formerly best known for characters like Fire Marshal Bill on Fox-TV's "In Living Color."
"I knew this movie was going to either be something that people really went for, or it was going to ruin me completely," Carrey said. "From the beginning of my involvement, I said that the character had to be rock 'n' roll. He had to be the .007 of pet detectives. I wanted to be unstoppably ridiculous, and they let me go wild."
A wild, ridiculous Carrey was exactly what Morgan Creek hoped for when the project was green-lighted. With past releases like "Dead Ringers," "Young Guns" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," the company has covered plenty of stylistic territory, though recent releases like "True Romance," "The Crush " and "Young Guns II" have been less than stellar at the box office. This time out, Chairman and CEO James G. Robinson was after a broad comedy.
"This is the movie we set out to make," he says. "I thought from the beginning that it would be a mistake to center a film on a great comedian like Jim Carrey and not let him cut loose."
"For me it was a complete ego trip to become Ace," says Carrey. "He's got all the fast, funny answers to every situation. He can fight. He can make love. He's the best. He's completely happy with his lot in life and just wants to keep his pets well-fed."
Audiences are responding enthusiastically to Carrey's frenzied antics, whether he's violently delivering a UPS package, catching bullets in his teeth or running football patterns in a tutu. The film, which also stars Sean Young, Courteney Cox, rapper Tone Loc and Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, is especially a hit with the 10- to 20-year-old age group it was originally targeted for. Box-office grosses indicate that many fans are going back to see the film again.
"It's wonderful and surprising to be at No. 1, because we're sort of an underdog film," says director Shadyac, 33, previously notable for being the youngest gag writer ever to work for Bob Hope. "But we were laughing so hard when we made this, we knew that if we managed to capture the fun and the spirit of Jim Carrey, we had a chance to put out a very successful movie."
Shadyac, who won the directing job by pitching a rewrite of the script to Robinson, says that Carrey's ability to produce laughs occasionally became a problem during production. "The most difficult thing about working with Jim was trying to keep the cast and crew from laughing during takes. We had to send Jim off the set in order to film Courteney's close-up lines because she couldn't keep a straight face with him standing there. We had to cut the movie around the shots where actors started cracking up."
Not many critics have been charmed by Ace Ventura's exploits, and several have charged that the film's humor is mean-spirited, needlessly raunchy and homophobic.
Despite the reviews, work offers have been piling up at Shadyac's office. "I didn't imagine that a completely crazy comedy like this would be the kind of film I'd make my debut with, but now that it's happened, I'm thrilled," he says. "One of the top agents in town called us and said he laughed all the way through the movie and was terribly embarrassed by that. That's a compliment as far as I'm concerned. I know comedy directors are rare and prized, and I hope I can help fill that void for a couple of movies.
"There's no way a film like 'Ace Ventura' can appeal to everybody, but it's amazing to see how many people love it. Jim Robinson said, right before we began shooting this film, 'Make a film that nobody my age gets.' "
Carrey was involved in rewriting the script, and was allowed a great deal of room to improvise on set. He says he frequently pursued comedic tangents that he knew would not appeal to everyone's tastes. "I wanted to keep the action unreal and over the top. When it came time to do my reaction to kissing a man, I wanted it to be the biggest, most obnoxious, homophobic reaction ever recorded. It's so ridiculous it can't be taken seriously--even though it guarantees that somebody's going to be offended."
Those deeply offended by "Ace Ventura's" success may not have to wait long to be rankled again. Robinson decided that "Ace" was worth a sequel before the first film was even completed, and both Shadyac and Carrey are excited about having another go at the character. Joining the writing team for "Ace II" will be Steve Oederkerk, who worked with Carrey as a writer on "In Living Color" and served as a creative consultant this film.
"This film has shown us in a flash that there's a huge audience for Jim Carrey's comedy," says Oederkerk, "and I think that surprised everybody, including Jim Carrey."
Robinson at least has no pretensions about the artistic value of his film.
"Look, I sincerely hope 'Schindler's List' cleans up at the Oscars. 'Ace Ventura' is a no-brainer. Buy yourself a tub of popcorn, sit back, and just give it up. Relax. There are no messages here and we're not trying to educate anybody. It's just an hour and a half to kick back and laugh."