What To Watch: Unpacking the Drama in Jim Carrey’s ‘Liar Liar’ (1997)

A comedic masterpiece reveals the dramatic future of its star.

Liar Liar is a 1997 comedy about a lawyer who, under the power of a wish from his son, is unable to lie for twenty-four hours.

The evolution of Jim Carrey from absurdist comedian doing anything for a laugh on television and stand-up in the early 1990s to the more dramatic, even award-winning roles in the later half and beyond, is a curious thing to examine as the actor/performer naturally grew away from the style that made him a household name, shifting to often heavy themes that many audiences weren’t ready to accept. Truthfully, there has always been an unhinged madness to his work, something that with even the ‘funniest’ roles revealed an underlying layer that was not always so humorous. I explored a bit of this in his famous turn as Ace Ventura, his breakout film in 1994.

After his success with the Ventura series and the cultural phenomenon known as Dumb and Dumber, he dabbled in dark comedy with the less-than-well-received The Cable Guy, which was a far departure from his typical goofy approach, pushing many fans away. However, Carrey wasn’t thinking about sticking to the past, his trajectory always one of growth and by 1997, especially on the cusp of expanding into his first true dramatic work with The Truman Show and Man on the Moon on the horizon.

Liar Liar
Liar Liar 1997 © Universal Pictures

With that, he needed an in-between role, something that tapped into the funny of his earlier work while showcasing a bit of the depth he was about to reveal in coming projects. Enter Liar Liar, a film that is simmering in both, and while the laughs are what most remember, there is plenty underneath it that is meant to serve as a springboard for the future of Carrey’s career.

THE STORY: Fletcher Reede (Carrey) is a successful attorney at a wealthy firm, looking to move up. He is divorced from Audrey (Maura Tierney), with whom he maintains a cordial relationship, mostly because he loves their young son Max (Justin Cooper), though because of his work, has a terrible tendency to lie to him when they can’t spend quality time together. Max is growing up without a dad. When Fletcher misses Max’s birthday party, this prompts his son to make a wish while blowing out the candles, one that he hopes will prevent his dad from lying for one day. It’s a touching little moment in of itself.

Liar Liar
Liar Liar 1997 © Universal Pictures

Well, you can guess what happens, and right at the most opportune time as as right at that moment not too far away, Fletcher is having sex with a superior and when asked how her performance was, well, he doesn’t quite give her high marks. When it becomes clear that he actually is physically unable to tell even the slightest of fibs, he slowly loses his grip and now must find a way to win a big case or lose his job, but more importantly, repair his relationship with Max before his mother moves him to Boston.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: There is a great comedy called All Of Me starring Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin (learn more here) that is a kind of comedic tour de force for Martin, a master class in physical comedy that remains his best film in the genre. With Liar Liar, it’s an easy line to draw from Carrey to Martin, almost as if Carrey is picking up the reigns and moving the style forward.

Liar Lair
Liar Liar 1997 © Universal Pictures

Now, to be sure, Carrey had already made a career of contorting himself into almost inhuman configurations, but there is a classic refinement to what he pulls off here, a maturity in his work that, while earning belly laughs for silliness, seems a step well above his chaotic turns in Ace Ventura or even The Mask. Watch him in the latter courtroom scenes and it’s clear, this is a talent with incredible range and control, even as it appears he is melting down. It’s his best work as a physical comedian and deserves to be more examined.

A GREAT MOMENT: An almost iconic demonstration of that comedic timing is easily the signature “The Pen is Blue” sequence where Fletcher attempts to lie to himself about the color of ball point pen in his office, eventually having an implosion of sorts that see him destroy his office and graffiti his own face. It’s not only very funny, it’s inspired and wile you watch, you can’t help but feel like you’re seeing something almost out-of-body, like it’s a ‘moment’ in cinema that shakes foundations.

Liar Liar
Liar Liar 1997 © Universal Pictures

However, despite these moments of genius, it is the toned down moments that work even better and any time Fletcher is with Max, the movie elevates to its highest points. Carrey is really good with Cooper and there is a frank honesty to their on-screen relationship that makes investing in the story not just easy, but welcome. All of their scenes feel authentic, made up on the fly even, and it’s in these scenes where we see the true Fletcher Reede behind the spastic, explosive incarnations seen everywhere else. This is the inner ‘good’ man, the figure we best identify with and the hero we get behind when it all comes together. He’s the dad every kid should have.

Liar Liar
Liar Liar 1997 © Universal Pictures

THE TALLY: What’s more so important about these moments is what they set up for where Carrey will go next, his dramatic timing the real winner here. Carrey in serious-mode is nearly as special as Carrey in rubber-man mode, and in fact, by the time he gets to 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his place in such a film is well-earned, his work leading to it an evolution from clown to leading man unlike many others in the industry. With Liar Liar, Carrey uses the broad opportunities in the story to refine his comedy while engaging in some purposeful histrionics that have value in what audiences can expect, and while we all love the funny man for his many contributions to comedy, it will most assuredly be his performances in his latter dramatic films that earn him the highest praise. Most of that begins with Liar Liar. It’s what to watch.

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