In 1994, ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ hit theaters, introducing the world to a character unlike most had ever imagined before. The film, while critically panned and a fountain of controversy, became beloved and so wildly popular, it generated a slew of now iconic catchphrases that new fans continue to spread every day. Ace is unstoppable, a force with no equal, but is he really what we think he is?
Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey) is by any definition, an eccentric guy. Often wearing baggy, colorful pants with old army boots and an open Hawaiian shirt over different colored T’s, it is his perfectly coifed winged hair-do that caps his signature look. Highly animated with a snappy, sardonic voice, Ace is quick with a putdown and ready with a come-back. He’s loud and obnoxious, has no couth, and excels at making a spectacle of himself. Mostly harmless, he devotes his life to the protection and care of animals, and claims to have a kinship with these creatures, able to call upon them in limited ways for help. They do indeed seem to understand that Ace is on their side and when around him, have a clear affinity for the rather peculiar man. Everyone he meets is struck by his whimsical and outlandish behavior, believing he is an oddball, strange, and anomalistic. He’s extremely confident and seems not to have a care in the world. Or does he? Is Ace Ventura in fact anything of what he appears?
From the very start, Ace is different. Disguised as a courier man with a package, he’s horrifically bad at the deception, utterly destroying the box he is meant to be delivering. Yes, the point of the scene is to make fun of how some boxes in real life get damaged in shipping, but what do we learn about the character in these opening moments? By flapping about, literally tossing and punching the carton he is carrying, he makes himself the most visible person on the street. He’s so outrageous in fact that people want nothing to do with him, which is certainly his intent. They may stare in disbelief, but there’s not one who engages him. He gets on the elevator, allowing the doors to smash the box while attempting to close and not a single person watching says a word. As if the entirety of the world around him suffers perceptual blindness, he goes about his charade with no attention given to him.
This is our first clue that Ace does things unlike anyone else and it’s not the lack of boundaries Ace has that signals the pattern in his behavior that we should pay attention to, but the freedom in public that he appears to be granted in continuing. Everywhere he goes, people tolerate him. It could be said that Ventura has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as he exhibits all the symptoms, including inability to keep still, rapid-fire speech, unrestrained emotional outbursts, sudden blurting of inappropriate comments and wholly acting on impulse with no thought to the consequences. But is it that or is he pretending?
There are two key moments in the film that suggest Ace is not entirely what we think. In one instance, a frustrated Ace is having trouble proving his theory about a missing gem stone in a Super Bowl ring. He is working with the Dolphins’ Publicist Melissa Robinson, played by Courtney Cox and at Melissa’s house, the visibly upset Ace is reclining on a chaise lounge chair, hostile with Melissa’s attempts to offers some other options. He becomes more sarcastic than usual, and his bitter retorts has her telling him that he’s upset and doesn’t know how to express anger. His reply: “Yeah. And you’re ugly.”(A classic misdirection indicating affection). She asks him to go but the phone rings, forcing her to leave him along with her pet dog. To the dog he says, “Ya like her, huh? Yeah, she’s all right.” And then goes after her.
This next part is telling in how Ace may be pretending and yet willing to show his true self. He rises from the chair, calling her name, then strips off his sunglasses in a dramatic shift to his appearance that visibly changes him. He leans on an open sliding door and in a voice we’ve never heard before, angst-ridden and emotional, he sullenly begins to say something, but upon seeing her, is interrupted by some bad news on the phone.
This drop in his charade hits hard. It’s brief yes, but jolting. This is a man weighted by some deeper issue and what’s more, he recognizes it, taking action to correct the behavior because, for the first time in maybe his whole life, he feels something for an actual human being. Melissa is somehow getting inside that abrasive exterior. But it’s gone in an instance as he must go face the public once more.
Later that evening, Ace and Melissa are investigating at the Dolphins’ offices. They are discussing the case and as he rifles through files, she asks him why he’s never joined the police department and become a real detective. He answers, “I don’t do humans,” a funny line on the surface that betrays much more than his detective policies. But I’ll get back to that. He then proceeds to tell Melissa about a dream he had when he was young. He describes how in the dream he is being followed by a dog with rabies, a big dog with bloodshot eyes and foam coming out of its mouth that no matter how fast he runs, the beast keeps gaining and gaining on him and how just before he makes it to the safety of his front door, the dog jumps and sinks his teeth into him. That’s when he woke up, he says and then tells Melissa to look at the hairs on the back of his neck. She does and he quickly howls at her like a rabid dog himself, scaring her, which is half the point of the story. Half. The other half is a confession.
Notice how Ace visibly changes again. They are entirely alone. His shoulders soften, his face relaxes, but it’s that significant change in the tone of his voice that really has impact. As his eyes drift away and he looks off into some unseen distance, Ace speaks ‘normally’, retelling a tale that, metaphorically speaking, is part of his past. Gone is the hectic speed, sarcasm, and volume of his voice, gone is the wild exaggerated facial contortions, and gone is the mask that he so obviously wears. Just like before.
So what is the dog that chases him? Is it just an animal in his dreams? Why would he tell her–a woman he is clearly becoming attracted too–this story? Remember that he said he doesn’t ‘do humans,’ that obvious defensive mechanism, clearly putting up a wall to say that human relationships don’t work for him. It’s how he can justify his job and his position. That rapid dog running him down is love. More specifically, unreciprocated love. Somewhere in his past he’s been hurt, deeply, and it haunts him. Melissa is the first woman he feels something more than sexual for, something about her has him feeling emotions that have him maybe a little frightened, like he has been before, but not enough to scare him away. By telling her the dream, he is confessing his fear in his own peculiar way. And she responds. The following scene sees them having vigorous sex of course, as this is a comedy, and he performs with exhaustive prowess. In bed, he maintains the ‘Ace’ persona, because this is where the truth about any real love is bared. And he is not willing to let her see that truth . . . yet. Melissa all but disappears until the end of the film, but then the two close the film with a passionate embrace and kiss and we see in his stance the same man from earlier.
The movie is a comedy, first and foremost, and a goofy one at that. Carrey’s rubber-faced talents were just about to propel him to superstardom and this film was a vehicle to get him there. Cox was nothing but a love interest for the Ace character, but there is subtext to this brief relationship that gave Carrey a chance to hint at the dramatic turns to come. Director Tom Shadyac allowed his star to break the seemingly ironclad persona of Ace Ventura just enough to suggest that what we are seeing is a character giving a performance, a chosen persona that Ventura uses as a shield, brandishing his behavior like a weapon to protect his heart. Melissa is the chance to break that armor and while the rules of the comedy keep much of that thinly veiled, careful viewing offers a deeper interpretation.
Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls however is another story.
What do you think? Is Ace being hiding in a shell? Let us know in the comments below.