It’s hard to review films that I enjoyed from my childhood. Unless I’ve grown to find them blatantly offensive and pandering like Forrest Gump, that sense of nostalgia and of a specific time and place in my life overwhelms my critical senses. Would I still enjoy Hook so much (a critical disaster when it was first released) if I hadn’t loved it as much as a kid? I don’t know, and deep down, that bothers me. I don’t want that sort of sentiment warping my writing. When I was in elementary school, Jim Carrey was probably one of my favorite comedic actors on the planet (I know. I was a dumb kid.), and along with The Mask, his 1997 vehicle Liar Liar was a personal favorite. But, Carrey’s career (excepting Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has been a joke the last thirteen years, and I was actively dreading putting Liar Liar in for fear that it would ruin a cherished childhood memory.
I worried too much. I’m not sure if any one on the planet could actually characterize Liar Liar as a good film, but Jim Carrey’s specific brand of physical and slapstick humor is on total display for every second of this film’s hour and a half running time, and whenever the movie’s hit-or-miss writing fails to score a joke, Carrey returns to save the day. That’s a problem; it’s a fairly major problem. But when you have a physical performer like Carrey who is at the top of his game, his presence alone is enough to make the film enjoyable, highly enjoyable at times. And though my inner Alexander Payne/Woody Allen fan wants to chide me for laughing as hard as I did at many of the more lowbrow jokes in Liar Liar, I would be the liar if I didn’t say that despite the film’s legion of flaws, Liar Liar can be both hilarious and entertaining. Still not sure if it’s a “good” film though.
Jim Carrey plays Fletcher Reede, a smooth-talking, womanizing litigator who can’t find time in his packed schedule to spend time with his five year old son Max (Justin Cooper). Even though Fletcher’s ex-wife Audrey (Maura Tierney) is getting closer to bland hospital administrator Jerry (Cary Elwes) who may be moving soon to Boston, Fletcher is unable to make his son a priority in his life, and Max has lived through a spell of broken promises. After Fletcher misses Max’s birthday party in order to sleep with his boss because he hopes it will help him make partner at his law firm, Max wishes that his dad couldn’t tell a lie for a whole day. And Max’s wish comes true. On the worst possible day for Fletcher as Max has a high-profile case to try that he can only hope to win through lying and Audrey decides to marry Jerry and move to Boston and Fletcher has one last chance to keep his son in his life.
The plot is as simple and juvenile as that. But, for what it’s worth, the movie manages to score some great laughs out of such a simple set-up. From the first moment that Fletcher begins uncontrollably telling the truth (where he tells his boss that he’s had better sex) through the following hour of classic Carey antics, Jim Carrey (and mostly Jim Carrey alone) is able to wring laugh after laugh out of mediocre at best writing. There’s a truly inspired sequence early in the film where Carrey is suddenly aware of his inability to lie and he attempts to write that a blue pencil is red. A physical comedy routine that the Stooges would have been proud of ensues. Similarly, at one point, Carrey tries to get out of having to continue trying a case he knows he can’t win by beating the holy hell out of himself in the court bathroom. It’s manic brilliance.
Sadly, as I’ve said, the film’s writing is all over the place. Sometimes, it works great. There’s a scene later in the film where Fletcher’s boss realizes he can’t lie so she forces him to tell all of the members of the firm’s partnership board how he really feels about them, but they think it’s a comedic roast (though even some of those jokes are lazy). Others are less than successful. Early on in the film, Fletcher gets in an elevator with a busty woman and the whole scene reeks of misogyny (there’s a difference between pointing misogyny out for laughs and still actually being misogynistic despite that). Similarly, by the film’s end, Liar Liar tries so hard for a treacly sweet and almost disgustingly happy ending that it ruined whatever more subversive humor Carrey had put on display earlier in the film.
If you can’t tell, I have kind of absurdly complicated feelings about Liar Liar. Yes, it is funny. I would be a pretentious liar and the worst kind of hipster if I tried to lie and say I didn’t enjoy sitting down and watching this movie again. And to go back to the point I was making in my opening paragraph, I honestly think the pleasure I derived from this film was more than a lasting memory of my childhood. Physical comedy is great when done well, and Jim Carrey used to be a master of the form. But, Liar Liar is a Jim Carrey vehicle in every sense of the word, and when the film strays even the slightest from his strengths as a comedian, it not only stops being funny; it becomes actively bad. So, perhaps a good film can not exist based solely on the strength of one component, but Jim Carrey’s madcap antics surely made Liar Liar a mostly enjoyable experience.
Final Score: B-