He's All Bent Out of Shape Over 'High Strung' Plans : Movies: Jim Carrey appears in a film that few people have heard about and that he won't talk about. But its distributors plan on cashing in on the red-hot star.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even Fireman Bill would probably recoil from the white heat emanating from Jim Carrey these days. The former "In Living Color" cast member--known in Hollywood now as the $7-million man, because that's his fee for motion pictures--became a superstar overnight earlier this year with "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective." His next movie, "The Mask," is expected to be a blockbuster when it opens later this month.

Carrey will have to stretch himself like Silly Putty in the next couple of years to keep up with a portfolio of high-profile movies that include "Batman Forever," "Dumb and Dumber," sequels to "Ace Ventura" and "The Mask," and possibly "Best Man."

But there's one upcoming Carrey movie that few people have heard about, and that he refuses to talk about--the 1991 "High Strung." His management, in fact, asked the film's distributors, Rocket Pictures, not to use Carrey's name or likeness in association with it at all.

They politely refused.

"Every superstar--Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger--all those guys had two or three pictures of really terrible quality out there that people capitalized on," said Tom Coleman, one of the principals of Rocket Pictures in Beverly Hills. Coleman's company bought the theater and video distribution rights to the forgotten film-festival entry as soon as Carrey became hot.

"This is different--this is a good movie," Coleman said. "He does his stuff, he's quite funny, and he should be proud of it. It's not like he took his clothes off or anything like Stallone" did in an early film.

Rocket plans to release "High Strung" theatrically in a few markets in September, when the big summer releases die down, followed by a national home video release, where most small films earn their keep.

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The problem Carrey appears to have with "High Strung" is the marketing plans, which will prominently feature him. Yet with the exception of one 10-minute scene at the end of the movie, Carrey appears in the $400,000 film only in brief flashes as a shadowy grim reaper. "High Strung" is essentially a one-man comedy routine, written and performed by comedian Steve Oedekerk, that takes place during one day inside the apartment of an uptight man called Thane. He can't stand relationships, breakfast cereals, junk mail, the fly trapped in his apartment or much of anything.

"High Strung" was financed by two Russian expatriates and directed by first-time director Roger Nygard. Carrey, who had just started on "In Living Color" when the movie was being made, agreed to shoot a small part as a favor to his friend Oedekerk, who is now writing the sequel to "Ace Ventura."

In accordance with his contract, Carrey's cameo is unbilled in the movie, unlike the appearances of other relatively well-known actors who show up in small parts, from Fred Willard as an insurance agent, to Thomas F. Wilson ("Back to the Future") as Thane's best friend, to Denise Crosby ("Star Trek: The Next Generation") as his boss.

"In the beginning, Jim wanted to secure his position, because when we were making the movie, his star was just about to bloom," said executive producer Vladimir Horunzhy, 43, a former orchestra conductor who fled his homeland 15 years ago with a rock guitarist, Sergei Zholobetsky, when they refused to join the Communist Party.

"It's very simple: Jim didn't want people to feel that he was available to do such small films. At the time we were shooting the picture, Jim wanted bigger movies and bigger fees," said Horunzhy, who now scores film music. He persuaded his friend Zholobetsky to sink his entire life savings--from selling medical equipment in New York--into the film.

"High Strung" received glowing reviews and won several awards on the film festival circuit, but the filmmakers could not find an interested theatrical or home-video distributor, leaving them with no return on their investment.

"I learned the film industry is like selling shoes--they all want brand names, and we didn't have a brand name," Nygard said. "Steve Oedekerk is quite well known as a stand-up comic, but that didn't matter to exhibitors. They wanted film names."

When "Ace Ventura" burst out in theaters to the eventual tune of $72 million, they suddenly found that name in Carrey. "Ace Ventura" has proven to be just as powerful a draw on home video, selling 4.2-million units to consumers in its first three weeks. Although he has appeared in "Once Bitten," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Earth Girls Are Easy," "The Dead Pool" and a few others, "High Strung" is the only one of his that hasn't been released.

" 'Ace Ventura' gave me a new lease on life," Horunzhy said.

The executive producers were soon entertaining offers from several independent distributors. They chose Rocket, which had shown interest in the project even before Carrey became a film star. Rocket expects limited theatrical revenue, but hopes to sell videos.

Carrey's camp won't comment, but sources say that a phone call was placed to Rocket asking that Carrey's name not be used to promote the film. Carrey's contract apparently states that the actor cannot appear in the film's title, closing credits or the credit block on advertising posters.

But that's not stopping Rocket from featuring Carrey in a promotional trailer and splashing his name and photo throughout the upcoming advertising campaign, which Rocket refuses to release in advance. Included in the ad will be a critic's quote from National Radio Review saying that Carrey is funnier in "High Strung" than he was in "Ace Ventura."

Coleman insists, though, that he is not selling "High Strung" as a Jim Carrey movie: "We're going to honor his contract to the letter, and the nature of his participation in the picture will come across in the marketing and billing."

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