Jim Carrey was both a phenom and a late-career bloomer. He dropped out of high school to work both as a janitor — his family was briefly homeless and relying on his salary — and as a stand-up comedian; he was opening for Rodney Dangerfield and touring his home country of Canada before he was old enough to vote. But then he moved to Hollywood, and despite some bit roles (Earth Girls Are Easy, one of Nicolas Cage’s buddies in Peggy Sue Got Married, an Axl Rose lip-syncing rock star in The Dead Pool), it never really came together for him. But he stuck with it — famously writing himself in 1985 a postdated $10 million check ten years in the future for “acting services rendered” — and after landing on In Living Color, he bagged a weird little script he didn’t even like called Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, decided to rewrite the whole thing himself, and almost instantly became the biggest movie star in the world.
But perhaps what’s most interesting was what happened next. Carrey began to question the trappings, and even the point, of movie stardom, and, as documented in the riveting documentary Jim & Andy, went through a total career (and mental) breakdown while filming Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon. Since then, Carrey hasn’t had the box-office might he once had — though his biggest hit ever came just a few years later — but he has become a far more fascinating personality, both onscreen and off. He has even inspired a sort of motivational philosophy of the self: Type “Jim Carrey philosophy” into YouTube, and you’ll find hundreds of fanmade videos featuring Carrey discussing success, and the conscious mind, and what it means to be alive. Oh, and he can paint too. It’s a long way from talking through your butt cheeks to Tone Loc.
Carrey in many ways has now merged the philosopher and the comedian with his terrific turn in Showtime’s Kidding, but he can still be the goofy movie star, as witnessed by this weekend’s release of Sonic the Hedgehog, which features him as an over-the-top villain. Carrey has had many ups and downs in his career, but even in his most obnoxious roles, there’s an inherent sweetness, and an undeniable sadness, at the center. But as Saturday Night Live reminded us, his characters will live on beyond all of us.
Here’s a ranking of all his major film roles, totaling 26, including Sonic.
26. The Number 23 (2007)
This notorious disaster (from his Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher) about a man obsessed with a book full of conspiracies about the number 23 is lurid, overcooked, and completely ridiculous, and not even in a fun way. Carrey has proven himself more than capable of taking on dramatic roles, but he’s all wrong for this; he just seems awkward and lost. The Number 23 also made you, well, worry about Carrey; sure, he was playing an unbalanced character, but signing on to do so made you wonder about his decision-making process at this particular point of his life. No more movies where there are scribbles all over your face on the poster, Jim.
25. Dark Crimes (2017)
Imagine if The Snowman (“Mr. Police …”) had been even worse of a flop, so much so that you didn’t even notice that it was ever released, and you have Dark Crimes, a dirge of a would-be thriller that features Carrey doing his darndest to erase every single ounce of his charisma. It works, so congratulations for that, Jim, but we really need to talk about the Polish accent he tries on for the role. For all its grim seriousness, the film’s depiction of violence against women is over-the-top and exploitive, and the whole thing makes you want to take several showers afterward. There might someday be a thriller in which Carrey works as the lead; he clearly wants to keep trying. But with this and The Number 23, maybe the universe is trying to tell him something.
24. Simon Birch (1998)
This would-be adaptation of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany — which the author wanted nothing to do with, and which turned out to be so different than the book that it featured a “suggested by” credit — is a bit of a fiasco, treacly, mushy, and desperate to yank on every heart string it can find by using any cheap ploy it can come up with. (The movie is so sugary-sweet you’ll want to keep several vials of insulin nearby.) The good news for Carrey is that he’s barely in it: He’s the adult version of Joseph Mazzello’s child character, narrating and looking back at the events of the plot years later. With any luck, he has forgotten this movie by now.
23. Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
Nicolas Cage had such a fun time as a supporting character in the first Kick-Ass that Carrey gave it a try in the sequel, with diminishing results. Carrey plays Colonel Stars and Stripes, a former criminal turned would-be superhero who mostly just enjoys beating people to death with a bat. Carrey tries on a tough-guy mafioso voice that isn’t particularly amusing, and the movie’s nihilist, crude poseur “attitude” was infantile at the time and has aged worse. Kick-Ass 2, and Carrey’s role in it, is mostly known now for Carrey disavowing the movie and its violence in the wake of the Newtown shootings, tweeting, “in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence.”
22. Once Bitten (1985)
Carrey was only 23 (and he looks it) when he made this cheesy ’80s comedy about a high school kid (Carrey) who is bitten by an older woman vampire (Lauren Hutton, who at least seems to be enjoying herself) and trying to lose his virginity to avoid turning into a vampire. (As one does.) Carrey is manic and bug-eyed but not particularly interesting in his starring film debut, and other than tiny roles in films too small to even make this list, it would be a decade until he had another major role. He eventually figured it out.
21. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
The worst of Carrey’s two Christmas films, this live-action remake of the Dr. Seuss classic seemed like a sure thing: Just imagine what a colorful Grinch he would be! And while How the Grinch Stole Christmas made tons of money, it’s a dreadful viewing experience. Turns out, it was that way for those on set, too: Makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji famously went into therapy after working with Carrey. (“On set, [Carrey] was really mean to everybody and at the beginning of the production they couldn’t finish,” he later said. “After two weeks we only could finish three days’ worth of shooting schedule, because suddenly he would just disappear and when he came back, everything was ripped apart. We couldn’t shoot anything.”) As for Carrey, the daily ordeal of being transformed into the Grinch very nearly drove him crazy. (“It was like being buried alive each day,” Carrey said. “On the first day I went back to my trailer, put my leg through the wall and told [director] Ron Howard I couldn’t do the movie.”) That all sounds awful. It’s still not as bad as having to sit through this maudlin, manipulative garbage.
20. Me, Myself & Irene (2000)
The air was starting to squeeze out of the previously robust Carrey–Farrelly brothers balloon with this limp, borderline offensive comedy about a kind-hearted, put-upon state policeman (Carrey) whose subconscious rage issues manifest themselves in a second, more violent personality. (“From Gentle to Mental,” reads the poster tagline.) Me, Myself & Irene is more mean-spirited than most of the Farrelly brothers’ movies (and most of the Carrey ones, really), and while it occasionally taps into Carrey’s penchant for darkness, it never thinks to do anything with it. This would be the last Farrelly brothers movie with Carrey until Dumb and Dumber To 14 years later, which Peter Farrelly would follow up with … Green Book.
19. The Majestic (2001)
Frank Darabont’s attempt to make a Frank Capra film is so desperate and blatant about its inspirations that you keep expecting “DOES THIS MAKE YOU THINK OF FRANK CAPRA?” and “OKAY, HOW ABOUT THIS?” title cards to keep popping up on screen. Carrey does his best Jimmy Stewart, but neither he nor Darabont have the edge or shadings that Stewart and Capra sneaked in to keep their movies honest. Carrey’s all-American cheerfulness and scrubbed-clean optimism work in the right role, but here, the whole movie drowns in glucose.
18. A Christmas Carol (2009)
Neither an unsung masterpiece nor the debacle its detractors claim, Robert Zemeckis’s third stab at motion-capture animation capitalizes on Carrey’s rubber-faced flexibility, giving us a Scrooge who’s relatively faithful to Charles Dickens’ depiction of a miserly, miserable soul. That this Christmas Carol ends up being as much a technical exercise as it is an emotional experience is not really his fault — damn Zemeckis and his need to turn everything into an amusement-park ride — but the actor does an honorable job of trying to locate the humanity within Scrooge. Still, this version is barely remembered, understandably.
17. Yes Man (2008)
How long ago was 2008? Yes Man existed in a Hollywood where Bradley Cooper was playing the buddy sidekick to leading man Jim Carrey, who was very much transitioning to his normcore period. No zany faces, no weird affectations, just Carrey as Carl, a sad regular dude who decides to change his fortunes by saying “yes” to everything that’s presented to him — including a relationship with the much-younger Allison (Zooey Deschanel). There are approximately 15,000 actors who would be perfectly fine in the Carl role, and there’s very little that Carrey can bring to this blah, earnest character. The guy’s so normal you keep waiting for the twist that never comes.
16. Fun With Dick and Jane (2005)
This remake of the 1977 subversive hit certainly sounded like a good idea on paper, with Carrey as an executive who takes the fall for a corrupt corporation and ends up robbing banks with his wife (Tea Leoni) to put food on the table. What could have been timely and sharp ends up generic and spineless in director Dean Parisot’s follow-up to the much-better Galaxy Quest. Fun With Dick and Jane ends up selling out its own premise in its last half, and it turns out the only topical aspect is a weak Enron joke. It’s a shame, because Carrey as a nightmare avatar of the American dream worked in The Truman Show, even The Cable Guy. But this movie’s not up for pushing hard at much of anything.
15. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
It’s practically a Hot Take to announce that we don’t entirely hate this disposable, endearingly goofy and stupid magician comedy. Carrey plays Steve Gary, who’s like Criss Angel if Criss Angel had his frontal lobe removed. It’s a hammy, silly performance that leans into these showmen’s razzle-dazzle, I-am-the-messiah bluster, but since Carrey is just a supporting player, he doesn’t overstay his welcome too badly. And, c’mon, how many movies feature him drilling a hole into his head?
14. The Ace Ventura movies (1994, 1995)
Despite his obvious talents, Carrey’s career had never quite taken off when he was young, and by 1994, he was well into his 30s and running out of time. So when producers of a movie about a wacky pet detective saw him on In Living Color and gave him a shot (for a film whose script he found “horrible”), he threw himself into the role like it was his last chance to be a star, which, all told, it probably was. Carrey told Roger Ebert, “I made a complete choice to go as far out as I possibly could. No half measures.” That go-for-broke, willing-to-have-whole-chunks-of-dialogue-spoken-through-his-anus batshittery drove critics nuts, but boy, did audiences ever respond: The film was a massive, massive hit and quickly turned Carrey into the biggest movie star in the world. To be honest, we still find these movies pretty impossible to sit through, but as a historical document, watching Carrey pull out every stop like his entire career depended on it has an undeniable fascination. We’re better off that Carrey became a star — ultimately, Ace Ventura was a net positive for the universe.
13. Bruce Almighty (2003)
The final collaboration with Ace Ventura director Tom Shadyac, improbably, remains the biggest hit of Carrey’s career. Carrey dials it down a bit as Bruce Nolan, a conceited television anchor who misses out on a promotion and blames an unfeeling and uncaring God for his troubles. Then God (Morgan Freeman, of course) shows up and basically dares Bruce to do His job better, giving him His powers. Carrey has his showcase moments — though it’s worth noting that Steve Carell, as his rival anchor, has the more traditionally elastic, over-the-top, “Jim Carrey” moments, and the role would eventually lead to Carrell getting the inevitable sequel. But the appeal of Bruce Almighty was less in his theatrics and more the journey he goes on to become A Better Human Being. It’s a universal story that’s competently done, but the real star of his movie is Freeman: We don’t know what God is like, but we hope He’s like this.
12. Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)
It’s been years since Carrey was in a major studio film, and this adaptation of the Sega game feels like his attempt to stay on people’s radar. (His Showtime series Kidding has gotten decent reviews but has never felt particularly zeitgeist-y.) Luckily, he’s the best part of Sonic the Hedgehog, where he plays Dr. Robotnik, a vain government scientist who’s confident that he’s intellectually superior to all those around him — and is obsessed with tracking down this wisecracking alien. Robotnik is a throwback to Carrey’s goofy Ace Ventura days, although not quite as juvenile, and the actor never condescends to the mediocre material. At 58, he remains a spry, balletic figure, and the character’s endless aggravation at being outsmarted by Sonic is never not funny. Too bad the movie isn’t better, but this is a nice reminder of what a genially inspired force of nature Carrey can be.
11. Batman Forever (1995)
By now, you’ve probably heard the story of how Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones did not get along while making this Joel Schumacher blockbuster. But it’s funny how, at the time, Carrey’s performance was actually seen as somewhat daring and adventurous, attempting to make the Riddler an outrageous and unpredictable villain. Since Batman Forever, of course, we’ve gotten Heath Ledger and other, more realistic portrayals of superhero bad guys, so Carrey’s high-energy, cartoon-y treatment has come to feel pretty shtick-y. Still, he’s clearly more inspired than Jones, whose Two-Face is dead on arrival.
10. I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)
Jim Carrey’s ability to project an air of insincerity was put to good use in this so-so dark comedy based on the life of Steven Jay Russell, a con artist who found love with fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). What Carrey does well in I Love You is make you believe Steven, even when your instincts tell you not to trust him. It’s a neat twist on the comic’s persona, which has always been built around getting you to like his characters, even when there seems to be something … off about them. I Love You is a little too cutesy, a little too pleased with its too-good-to-be-true story, but Carrey’s willingness to dig into this profoundly fake man has its rewards.
9. Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011)
An interesting irony of Carrey’s career is that when he does a family-friendly movie, in which he’s often encouraged to go far over the top, he’s much better and more appealing than when he settles down to play a more “normal” person. Mr. Popper’s Penguins sure seems like it would be an invitation to overplay — Carrey is doing the Don Knotts role, for crying out loud — but Carrey is surprisingly affecting as a divorced dad in New York City dealing with his own issues with an absent dad who, when that dad dies, find himself the inheritor of a crate full of penguins. Carrey is light, and unusually comfortable in the part, tapping into a quiet sweetness that isn’t always there in his big studio roles. This movie is better than you think it is, and your kids will love it. Fun trivia: This was originally going to be made with Ben Stiller … and directed by Noah Baumbach!
8. The Mask (1994)
Sort of Carrey’s Nutty Professor — ordinary guy gets strange transformational power, unleashing his obnoxious id in the process — The Mask was part of the string of mammoth hits for the former In Living Color star that made him Hollywood comedy gold. In hindsight, this isn’t exactly top-shelf Carrey — it’s mostly fun for the platform it gave him to cut loose, which audiences at the time couldn’t get enough of — but it’s consistently funny. Clearly, Carrey was feeling himself and having a ball. But he’s also a bit of a solo act, not entirely meshing with the rest of his cast mates. (Right, Cameron Diaz is also in this.) The most remarkable thing about The Mask in light of our franchise-heavy era is that there weren’t immediately four more of them made. (And, no, this doesn’t count.)
7. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
If you can let go of much spiritual connection to the Daniel Handler books this was based off – if that’s your bag, the Netflix show with Neil Patrick Harris is probably more to your speed – there is fun to be had in this Brad Silberling adaptation of the first three Snicket books. More to the point, you have to be willing to just sort of go with Carrey here, whose Count Olaf is like the Grinch crossed with Orson Welles (who Carrey said was an inspiration) but much, much better than when he actually played the Grinch. Carrey feels comfortable in the role, and if anything, it reminds one of The Mask, when his improvisations could fit well within a film without dominating it. We prefer it to the Netflix series, and you might too.
6. The Cable Guy (1996)
Before this edgy Ben Stiller–directed comedy, Jim Carrey was on such a hot streak that it seemed like just about everything he touched would turn to gold. Then came The Cable Guy, where Carrey’s abrasive, creepy Chip did everything he could to alienate audiences while freaking out hapless everyman Steven (Matthew Broderick). This movie was the first sign that Carrey was going to challenge viewers and not just be the benign funny guy they knew from his broad comedies. The Cable Guy was written off as a misfire at the time, although it’s belatedly earned cult status, and it’s a fascinating early example of the dark streak underneath the actor’s slapstick shenanigans. To hell with the box office: This side of Carrey’s personality would not be suppressed.
5. The Dumb and Dumber films (1994 and 2014)
This is actually Carrey’s best Christmas film. In Dumb and Dumber, he plays Lloyd Christmas, whose best friend Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) is just as moronic as he is — the thing is, neither of them realizes that because they’re so dumb. Forget the terrible sequel: The 1994 original is a relentlessly idiotic slapstick comedy, which we mean as high praise. Carrey has not always had the greatest chemistry with his co-stars, but he and Daniels found a nice rhythm to their dopiness, giving each actor enough room to be funny without crowding out the other. The jokes are sometimes mean, but Lloyd has such sweetness that you forgive him for everything he does in the movie. Still, we’d advise against joining him on any road trips.
4. Man on the Moon (1999)
As we mentioned in the intro, if you love this movie, you owe it to yourself to check out Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, the 2017 Netflix documentary that explored in detail Carrey’s commitment to playing Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, a quirky, deeply affecting biopic about the late comic. Both in Jim & Andy and the biopic, we learn as much about Carrey as we do Kaufman: how the star embraced the Taxi comedian’s desire to subvert expectations and antagonize audiences. Carrey doesn’t just mimic Kaufman, he becomes him, and as a result Carrey has rarely seemed so alive, so free, onscreen. In a sense, Kaufman’s rebelliousness allowed the A-lister to shed his celebrity and become someone else for a little while. Man on the Moon plays like an escape hatch for Carrey, who eventually had to return to Earth.
3. Liar Liar (1997)
If you think of Carrey’s career like Adam Sandler’s — and we’re not saying you should — you can make an argument that during his Biggest Movie Star in the World period, he had his Jim Carrey Comedy Superstar movies (the Farrelly brothers and Shadyac) and then his Working With Serious Directors to Make Art movies (two of which we’ll be getting to next). The one film that comes closest to merging those two is Liar Liar, a high-concept comedy about a slimy lawyer (Carrey) who, because of a birthday wish from his son, cannot tell a single lie. This turns out to be an extremely fruitful idea for a comedy, as the lawyer keeps running into situations in which his particular affliction is incredibly inconvenient. But he also gets a redemption arc that, particularly at this point in Carrey’s career, is surprisingly moving; Carrey has that normal-guy mode he can shift into that really works when he gets it right. Plus: We’ve been using “the Claw” on little kids for 23 years because of this movie. They love it.
2. The Truman Show (1998)
When Carrey was promoting his first drama, the Oscar-nominated Truman Show, he was philosophical about the change-of-pace role. “This film is a little bit of a Dali painting,” he said at the time, “in the way that I’ve always been showing you what’s on the surface and what I do to be accepted and to be loved, but here, we’re lifting up the ocean to see the sleeping dog.” That’s actually a pretty great way of describing what’s so special about his performance as Truman, a seemingly ordinary man who doesn’t understand that he’s been the subject of a reality show since birth. The Truman Show has only gotten more prescient about our fishbowl lives, but for Carrey, it revealed an openness and vulnerability he didn’t dare convey as Ace Ventura. The Academy overlooked him, but the film hinted at the emotional depth he’d start bringing to his more adventurous subsequent work.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
It’s a familiar strategy: Funnyman goes for a muted, modest, melancholy performance, and the Oscar voters flip out. But with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it wasn’t such a simple thing as Carrey toning down his shtick and getting sad. As Joel, he tapped into something truly broken inside himself, playing a depressive who discovers that his true love, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has paid to have her memories of him erased. Joel is the quintessential pushover, but Carrey gave the archetype a twist, showing how self-absorbed and closed-minded the so-called nice guy can be. You feel for Joel but don’t necessarily think that he and Clementine are destined to be together, a tricky balancing act that Carrey and Winslet pull off beautifully. He’s never been realer onscreen. Irony of ironies, his luminous work here didn’t earn him an Oscar nomination. But anyone who saw Eternal Sunshine will never forget what he achieved.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.