“Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” is the latest example of Hollywood’s favorite kind of perpetual motion machine. When a film makes money, it’s a foregone conclusion that its star will be rolled over into another one just like the other one.
So here comes Jim Carrey, hero of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” complete with his jet-stream pompadour and Hawaiian shirts, back trying to make the world safe for animals and amusing for that audience segment that likes its humor keyed to bodily functions.
Since making that first “Ace,” Carrey has had an impressive string of hits, including “The Mask,” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Batman Forever,” and it’s inevitable that his trademark demented persona does not feel quite as fresh here as it has on previous occasions.
Yet, there is also little doubt that when it comes to extreme physical humor, Carrey is remarkably gifted, a throwback to the vintage antics of Jerry Lewis or even the slapstick gang of silent comedy. Capable of twisting his face into wind-tunnel contortions and thrusting his body into outrageous situations, he is the new model wild and crazy guy, out of control and loving it.
And those who venture into “When Nature Calls” will find at least a few moments of amusement, most of them impossible to describe because they are so dependent on Carrey’s out-there physicality. Try to imagine him conscientiously spitting up dinner for a baby bird and carefully wiping off its beak, or straining to escape from the rear-end of a stealth rhino. It’s dumb and dumber, but it’s also hard not to laugh at.
Most of “When Nature Calls,” however, is so flat it’s hard to stay awake. Written and directed by Steve Oedekerk, an old stand-up pal of Carrey’s making his feature debut, the film has the hit-and-miss quality of a weak stand-up act, with a rapid-fire delivery attempting to make up for the lack of consistent humor.
“Nature’s” opening sequence, however, is a gem. A clever parody of the Sylvester Stallone-starring “Cliffhanger,” it has Ace inching up a mountain in a daring attempt to rescue a raccoon stranded after a plane crash, a climb that comes to a bad end when a buckle gives way and the raccoon plummets to its demise.
Broken in spirit by this tragedy, Ace retreats to a Tibetan monastery to repair his soul. He’s found there by Fulton Greenwall (Ian McNeice), who entices him out with an African assignment: Find a sacred animal and prevent a war between a pair of neighboring tribes, the Wachatis and the Wachootoos.
As those two names make obvious, this is very much a cartoon Africa, an out-of-date caricature of the continent complete with a nasty British counsel (Simon Callow) and comic-opera natives in elaborate costumes. In fact, the film’s entire plot would be completely at home as a vehicle for Abbott and Costello.
Carrey is generally funny as he comes to grips with the fact that the missing sacred animal is a great white bat, the one kind of animal (“a filthy flying weasel”) that is his weakness. Still, it is difficult not to agree with a tribal princess (Sophie Okonedo) when she tells Ace, “You make me smile, yet I am troubled.”
Because if almost anything that Carrey does is at least a little bit funny, not enough effort is put into making sure that his material is always as good as it could be. And, given that his comic persona is not exactly cerebral, making a smart film with Carrey as its star would be quite a challenge. Even for Ace Ventura.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for crude humor. Times guidelines: a few mildly off-color jokes.
‘Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls’
Jim Carrey: Ace Ventura
Ian McNeice: Fulton Greenwall
Simon Callow: Vincent Cadby
Maynard Eziash:i Ouda
James G. Robinson presents a Morgan Creek production, release by Warner Bros. Director Steve Oedekerk. Producer James G. Robinson. Executive producer Gary Barber. Screenplay by Steve Oedekerk. Cinematographer Donald E. Thorin. Editor Malcolm Campbell. Costumes Elsa Zamparelli. Music Robert Folk. Production design Stephen J. Lineweaver. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.