Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
It was July 4, 1994. The sun had set and my friend Danny joined our family on the long walk to the neighborhood pool. We were heading over for the annual fireworks display. How are two sugar-addled, obnoxious 12-year-old boys going to entertain themselves until the big show? Why, attempt to recite every scene and line of dialogue from what was, in our minds, the greatest movie ever made. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) had been released in the dump month of February and we’d already seen it a combined seven times. It’s shocking now, but going to the movies used to be very affordable. How far did we get? All the way to the Ron Camp scene. I believe that we could’ve done the whole movie if we hadn’t run out of time. Literally a few weeks later, The Mask would also be released, followed by the incredible Dumb and Dumber. Jim Carrey-mania had officially begun.
Thanks to Sonic The Hedgehog (2020), I was able to take my daughter to see Jim Carrey go ‘Full Jim Carrey.’ When I was a kid, the only Jim Carrey I ever saw was ‘Full Jim Carrey,’ so the fact that he would later take steps to become a ‘serious actor’ never remotely crossed my mind. That’s not to say he entered A-list superstardom fully-formed. It’s both weird and highly amusing to watch Carrey’s early work. You know what he’s capable of and often he’s either being a regular guy or has the Carrey-meter turned way down to maybe a two-and-a-half. A little wackiness here and there, but nothing you’d look twice at. I hang my head low as I confess, I did indeed rent 1981’s Canadian “comedy” Rubberface from Blockbuster. Why? You know why. They plastered Jim’s face on the cover. Revolving around a shy girl and Carrey as a terrible stand-up comic, it was basically a long short film with a cliché ending where Carrey fakes laryngitis to get his friend up on stage. 1985 represents a false start for Carrey. If the double whammy of the vampire comedy Once Bitten (which I watched on cable ALOT) and Francis Ford Coppola’s well-reviewed minor hit Peggy Sue Got Married had been a bigger deal, he might have become a star way sooner. He went with the respectable ‘James Carrey’ credit for his two Clint Eastwood films, Pink Cadillac (1989), and his role as rock star Johnny Squares in The Dead Pool (1988), incongruously lip-synching to ‘Welcome to the Jungle.’ Earth Girls are Easy (1988) gave some indication of his true talent, but it’s universally agreed that his true coming-out party was In Living Color (1990). As the token white guy, his insane characters, particularly ‘Fire Marshall Bill,’ stunned audiences. In a show full of brilliant actors and classic characters, he was still able to stand out despite the program being predominantly a sketch show for African American performers.
The one-two-three punch of Ace, Mask, and Dumber is that ultra-rare occurence where what should have become tiresome instead only whetted our appetites. It’s the equivalent of eating the same meal for a week and having no problem doing it all over again. Nearly all the critics despised Ace Ventura. The Razzies nominated Carrey for Worst New Star of the year. The Mask was better received and his performance in Dumb and Dumber was likely the reason critics begrudgingly accepted the fact that Carrey was here to stay. As Lloyd Christmas, his work with Jeff Daniels showed him playing a regular guy role mixed with crazy antics. It proved he was able to tone it down while staying funny. The Mask was more of a Jekyll and Hyde situation where one character was normal and the other a living cartoon. The Razzies seem to have understood what a talent Carrey was and would not nominate him again until he really deserved it for 2007’s The Number 23. As a huge fan, I was rooting for him when he made The Truman Show (1998). Although I’m sure I had mixed feelings when I saw that brilliant Peter Weir film, it didn’t shake my fanboy feelings when Carrey wasn't being that funny this time around. Years later, I watched the series finale of The Larry Sanders Show and Jim Carrey lets Garry Shandling have it when it's clear he was underestimated and ignored by the producers since they thought he was an over-the-top, flash-in-the-pan, flavor of the month. It’s a very telling moment that’s absolutely rooted in fact. Jim Carrey became the biggest movie star in the world, but Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was no guaranteed smash.
The movie is a blast right from the start. We have no idea who this guy is, but he’s beating the ever-loving shit out of a package. Accompanied by John Hughes’ regular composer Ira Newborn’s pitch-perfect score, the unorthodox delivery man finds new and horrifying ways to damage a package that would give a UPS driver a heart attack. Director Tom Shadyac and DP Julio Macat deserve credit for shooting the film as simply as possible, with wide angles to allow Carrey the freedom to experiment. A long dolly down a hallway lets Jim indulge in some soccer moves before “going downtown” with a big kick, the package landing on his target’s door. We get our first “Aaaaalllll righty then” and the first real taste of what this performance is going to be. Jim Carrey is Ace Ventura, a pet detective who finds lost animals. In this case, he steals a Shih Tsu from Raising Arizona’s Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb, which I wouldn’t recommend, and returns it to what was probably my first real crush, Rebecca Ferratti. Now that I’m older, I know what’s going on when in lieu of a reward, Ace accepts her offer to take his pants off instead. At the time, I just thought it was silly, like he’s standing in a washing machine.
The plot involves the kidnapping of Snowflake the dolphin, a mascot for the Miami Dolphins. Bad timing since this is the week of the Super Bowl and as the team’s owner Riddle (played by the incomparable Noble Willingham of Good Morning Vietnam, The Howling, and many others) claims, these players are very superstitious. It’s up to Melissa (Courtney Cox, just beginning her role on Friends) and Roger Podacter (one of my favorite character actors, Troy Evans) to find Snowflake. It’s admittedly ridiculous that they take the advice of a secretary who suggests hiring a pet detective. Melissa makes the level-headed call that the police would be the best outfit to handle this situation, but Ace is called in anyway.
He clearly needs the work as he’s hassled by his landlord Mr. Shickadance (Scarface and Breaking Bad’s Mark Margolis), whom he mistakes for ‘Satan,’ about rent money and his ‘no pets allowed’ policy. Ace assures Shickadance that once he finds a rare albino pigeon some rich guy lost, he’ll be paid. Inquiring as to the reason Ace has so much pet food, he replies, “Fiber.” After slamming the door in his face and calling Shickadance a “loser,” another word that regained its popularity due to this movie, he’s hit by a barrage of ‘jungle friends,’ the forbidden animals that remained surprisingly quiet during Shickadance’s snooping. I’ve always thought the only problem here was that Shickadance didn’t question the need for a pet door on the refrigerator. After nearly dying from falling off a roof while trying to catch the elusive pigeon, he receives a page. This, children, is how we used to get in touch with people before cell phones. He’s brought to the Dolphins main office, ticks off Courtney Cox by eating sunflower seeds and disposing of them on her desk, then inspects the empty tank, busting out the William Shatner impersonation from his old stand-up days. Legend has it that sometimes Carrey would go out onstage with no plan and just wing it to see what would happen.
The movie smartly allows the other characters to acknowledge Ace’s behavior. After all, he’s acting like a complete and total nut job. It never goes so far as to have someone go up to him and ask what the hell his problem is, but there’s at least an effort to show that this behavior isn’t normal. Thankfully, a scene where Carrey adopts a phony accent and pretends to be a fish expert was cut from the film, although it came back, like herpes, when the film played on cable to help the runtime. I re-watched this film on Netflix and I was praying this cut would not include that scene. Thankfully, it didn’t. Although 99% of the time I appreciate the director’s cut of a film, there have been occasions where I’ve been happy that the streaming version has been the theatrical cut. Tropic Thunder streamed the theatrical version while my DVD was the extended cut. Not a fan of those deleted scenes, except an extended bit about Renny Harlin. That's pretty funny.
A scene that I regard as comedy gold is the police station scene. Yes, this movie, for better or likely worse, provoked a million children to pretend to speak through their butts. I didn’t even know what Binaca was, but that didn’t stop me from requesting it, or a mint. Or singing the Italian classic, “Asshole-o-mia! Oh Sodomiahhh!” Detective Emilio (rapper Tone Loc, whose relaxed screen presence and gravelly voice gained him a fair amount of work in films like Heat, Posse, Blank Check (Juice!), Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, and his most important work, Surf Ninjas) is a friend of Ventura’s, who is looking for information about Snowflake’s disappearance. Ace is the laughing stock of the department and no one, besides the lieutenant, gives him more hassle than Sergeant Aguado. Played by John Capodice, who incredibly has never been in a Scorsese film but found time to appear in Q: The Winged Serpent, Wall Street, The Scout, Gremlins 2, Speed, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, is the stereotypical New York Italian who busts Ace’s balls. When he challenges Ace to solve the mystery of how a cockroach he just squished was killed, Ace establishes a motive. “The perpetrator saw the size of the bug’s dick and became exceedingly jealous.”
We don’t know it yet, but we meet our villain, Lieutenant Einhorn, played by Sean Young. She’s sexy and tough as nails. Sean Young makes me sad sometimes. She had a rough time in the late eighties and early nineties. It’s nice to see that she’s transitioned from a gorgeous screen siren into a reliable character actress. Her work in Stripes (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) introduced a bright, new star. She’d already broken through thanks to the success of No Way Out (1987) and who knows what her career would have been like if she hadn’t had her horse-riding accident and got to play Vicki Vale in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Accidents happen and it’s very unfortunate. Just ask Meg Tilly. After her injury during a soccer game, she had to be replaced by Elizabeth Berridge in Amadeus (1984). She was put in a very difficult position, but I think Berridge’s performance is the weakest part of Milos Forman’s otherwise beautiful film.
Just my opinion, but I don’t think Sean Young is ‘crazy’ and I believe the Hollywood establishment punished her because of various indiscretions. In 2008, she checked herself into rehab for her alcoholism, but outside forces probably contributed to her downward spiral. Turning down Warren Beatty’s advances and then calling him out on it cost her Dick Tracy (1990). The James Woods stalking incident is bizarre and a tad disturbing but Woods seems like the type to hump-and-dump so I’m still on her side for that one. Yes, dressing up like Catwoman and searching for Tim Burton on the Warner Brothers lot got her a lot of bad press and I can’t say it was a wise move. Still, she bounced back and displays a great commitment to her role here. Who knows? The ‘crazy’ rumors may even stem from this performance, because she certainly is certifiable in this one. Ace screams “Holy testicle Tuesday!” when she arrives. He doesn’t know how right he is.
After finding a piece of orange amber in the tank, he realizes the kidnapper wears an AFC championship ring. In a series of scenes that are quite funny but have very little to do with the plot, Ace seeks the help of Woodstock (Raynor Scheine, an actor who is always welcome in a western or as a vagrant), a tech wizard who protects animals. The password to enter Woodstock’s sanctum is “New England Clam Chowder” but the big question is: is that the red or the white? It’s something I ask my wife all the time. A billionaire named Ron Camp (the legendary Udo Kier) has recently bought a huge fish tank, leading Ace to believe he's the culprit. Melissa agrees to be his date and he poses as lawyer Tom Ace while he searches for clues. This entire sequence is just an excuse for gags including a Mission Impossible-parody where he acts as though he has to scale walls and shimmy along fences even though a walk-way is right there. It’s pure fun and incomparably bonkers. The big tank turns out to house a huge shark, which tears into Ace. In one of the most quoted lines of the film, he emerges from the bathroom soaking wet, pants shredded, and exclaims, “Do NOT go in there! Woo!” Camp apologizes for the restroom issues to which Ace replies, “If I’d been drinking out of the toilet, I might’ve been killed.” I adore this whole scene, but if it were missing from the film, it wouldn’t make any difference. Another rare case of gags being there for gags’ sake.
Camp is ruled out and we’re treated to a montage of Ace tracking down all of the ex-football players to check their rings. It’s filled with a bunch of clever touches, my favorite being when Ace makes a player give him the middle finger and checks the ring through binoculars. Reaching a dead end, he takes his frustration out on Melissa, whom he hilariously calls ‘ugly’ and ‘fatty.’ He also accuses her of beating her dog. It could come off as incredibly mean-spirited if Carrey wasn’t so damn funny. It doesn’t hurt that we threaten to beat our dog all the time but end up just rubbing his belly and giving him treats. The mood turns somber when Melissa is told that Roger Podacter is dead.
In an apparent suicide, Podacter jumped off the balcony of his apartment. Einhorn and the cops figure it’s an open-and-shut case, but in one of the film’s best scenes, Ace shows what a great detective he really is. Going through every detail of the crime, he figures out that Roger was murdered. Growing up, anytime I saw a sliding door, I would do the bit where Ace yells and opens and shuts the door to prove his point. His epic celebration, complete with pelvic thrusts and Poltergeist references, is a joy to watch. I had forgotten about the next scene where he tells Courtney Cox about a scary dream he had as a kid. Very well-acted, it’s a testament to Jim Carrey’s balancing act where he can jump from his extreme performance to a more subtle form of acting without betraying the character. Ace discovers that the one player he hasn’t investigated is disgraced kicker Ray Finkle, whose gaff caused the Dolphins to lose Super Bowl XVII.
He visits Ray Finkle’s childhood home where he meets Finkle’s gun-toting pappy (noted bit-player Bill Zuckert) and his sweet but cuckoo mother (Alice Drummond). I like to think that Drummond is playing the same character she played in Ghostbusters (1984) and her mental stability here is a direct result of seeing that ghost in the library. There are some great bits here, but the best may be the way Drummond delivers the line, “Dan Marino should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell. Would you like a cookie, son?” Ace figures out that Finkle blames Marino for his blown extra point kick and tries to warn him, but it’s too late. Marino is kidnapped and joins Snowflake.
Ace decides to share his newfound information with Einhorn, figuring he can get some help finding the elusive Finkle. Einhorn unexpectedly comes on to him and ‘sticks her gun into his hip,’ if you know what I mean. Ace nearly succumbs, even having to fake whip his flailing pelvis, but he resists. Melissa poses as his sister to commit him into Shady Acres Mental Hospital, a facility where Finkle was last seen. In a stunning display of physical comedy, he executes a slow-motion football catch for the admitting doctor (David Margulies, another Ghostbusters vet). He finds Finkle’s things and is nearly caught by some orderlies. Ace tries to stuff himself inside a much-too-small box to hide. It’s another fun scene that I attempted more than once with many a box. He finds an article about a missing hiker named Lois Einhorn.
Puzzled by the connection between Einhorn and Finkle, he struggles to make sense of the case. After one of his dogs sits on a picture of Finkle, he realizes that “Einhorn is Finkle. Finkle is Einhorn! Einhorn is a man! Oh my God!” What follows is a now-controversial scene that is very problematic. I’m not going to lie; it still makes me laugh. I feel bad, but Carrey just refuses to not be funny. However, the accusations against the movie regarding this scene are 100% accurate. There’s a brilliant moment on Brooklyn Nine-Nine where Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) remarks that Ace Ventura is an amazing comedy despite becoming wildly transphobic near the end. Ace, upon realizing he’s kissed a man, pukes his guts out, puts a plunger on his own face, squirts toothpaste in his mouth, burns his clothes, and takes a hot shower while sobbing. The music that accompanies the scene is the theme from The Crying Game (1992), a much more sensitive film that still features a man puking after seeing a woman with a penis. It’s deeply offensive, homo and transphobic. Some critics feel that our knowledge of transgender people was simply incomplete at the time the movie was made, but it’s still a cheap laugh that has not aged well. I do admit, the scene where he chews at least 20 to 30 sticks of gum to get Einhorn out of his mouth is pretty funny.
He follows Einhorn to her hideout where she’s got hired goons keeping an eye on Snowflake and Marino. The goons are noteworthy since they’re played by frequent Scorsese collaborator Frank Adonis (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, as well as King of New York and Bad Lieutenant) and Tiny Ron from Road House and as the Rondo Hatton lookalike Lothar in The Rocketeer. Dispatching the goons, Ace tries to free Marino but Lois gets the drop on him. She tries to frame Ace for the kidnapping, which has always felt like an improbable plan despite her position, and Ace has to convince the cops that Einhorn is Ray Finkle. Though funny, it seems insane that Einhorn would just stand there while Ace tears off her clothes to prove that she’s a man. Young makes the bold choice to act like she’s in shock, which I suppose is the best move since the movie has to end. Her true gender is finally revealed in a scene that baffled me when I was twelve. She’s tucked her testicles between her legs and there’s a strange bulge in her panties. It turns out Ace isn’t the first person Finkle has kissed and the entire police squad starts to spit. The Crying Game theme resumes and we get more transphobia.
Ace is hailed as a hero and drives Marino back to the stadium in time for the second half of the Super Bowl. A personal favorite moment is when Marino asks if he has more gum, which I assume is from the huge lump Ace took out of his mouth and stuck in a wad of foil earlier, to which Ace replies, “That’s none of your damn business and I’ll thank you to stay out of my personal affairs.” Marino says, “You’re a weird guy, Ace. A weird guy.” I say that line all the time. The movie has one more bit as the rival team’s mascot shoos away the albino pigeon, causing Ace to get into a huge fist fight. We end in a typical freeze frame and get a little Tone Loc hip hop during our end credits.
Credit director/co-writer Tom Shadyac for having the good sense and comedic chops to guide Carrey through this tricky role. Carrey has often said that this performance could have destroyed his career and if the film had been directed any differently, it may have been a failure of epic proportion. Shadyac may have been the John Landis of his generation. Ace Ventura was his first major film and he followed that up with the fabulous Eddie Murphy comeback vehicle The Nutty Professor (1996), the highly enjoyable Liar Liar (1997), and the manipulative but sweet Patch Adams (1998). All of these films made a boatload of money. He stumbled when he tried a change of pace with Dragonfly (2002) but the next year he bounced right back with Bruce Almighty (2003), grossing 400 million dollars. Around the release of the flop sequel Evan Almighty (2007), starring the newly A-list Steve Carell (who played a supporting role in the original), Shadyac would suffer a major biking accident. He experienced a spiritual awakening and has retired from directing comedies, focusing instead on uplifting stories. Though not exactly the same, he’s basically pulled a ‘Gary Busey.’ It is what it is, but I think it’s sad that we lost a filmmaker who had a deft touch with comedy. Dramas are one thing, but as they say, dying is easy, comedy is hard.
It’s understandable Carrey would try to grow as an actor and prove that he could do more than flail around like a marionette. Thanks to the eye-opening documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017), we’ve learned that his experience playing deceased comedian Andy Kaufman had a profound effect on him. Although there would be a few profitable biggies, including his nightmarish and unnecessary Grinch movie, his career went downhill and has never fully recovered. With the exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and to a lesser extent, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009), he’s never been able to regain his position as a major star. He’s still able to headline movies, but I find them more depressing than fun. He looks tired. The zaniness iss still there, but it feels empty. It was pleasing to see him really have some fun in Sonic. It wasn’t perfect, but it felt like a comeback. Watching Ace Ventura again was like finding a long-lost childhood treasure. The nostalgia factor was strong and good feelings came flooding back.