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Jim Carrey Is Beautifully Broken in ‘Kidding’

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Showtime series

In last year’s fascinating documentary Jim & Andy — about Jim Carrey and the making of Man on the Moon — the actor recalls first meeting with Michel Gondry, who would direct him in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Carrey was at a low point when the two men discussed their forthcoming project, and Gondry could see it all over his face — and was thrilled. “He looked at me over lunch,” Carrey said, “and he said, ‘Oh, my god, you’re so beautiful. You’re so beautiful right now. You’re so broken. I love this. Please don’t get well.’”

Carrey channeled that brokenness brilliantly in Eternal Sunshine, playing a lovelorn man trying to erase his true love from his memory. Fourteen years later, Carrey once again has teamed up with Gondry, delivering an even more broken performance. Kidding isn’t Carrey’s best work, but it captures something about him that’s unique among actors and certainly comedians: He’s superb at rooting around in his characters’ despair, unearthing the desperation, misery and insanity within them. Watching this new Showtime series, you’re never sure if he’s going to cry his eyes out or kill everyone around him.

Created by Dave Holstein, a writer on the Carrey-produced Showtime comedy-drama I’m Dying Up Here, Kidding stars Carrey as Jeff, who plays Jeff Pickles on a beloved PBS kids’ program, Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time. (Think Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with groovier puppets and a hipper host.) Jeff’s personal life is beset with tragedies. His wife (Judy Greer) is leaving him and sleeping with some new guy (Justin Kirk). And one of his twin sons, Phil, recently died in a car crash — while the other son, Will (Cole Allen), thinks he’s a cuck.

Showtime made Kidding’s first four episodes available to critics — the pilot can be seen on YouTube — and at this early stage, I still can’t say I have any inkling of exactly where the show is going. But Kidding’s brittle/unpredictable tone — nicely established by Gondry, who directed the first two episodes — makes it hard to dismiss, even when jokes fall flat and the momentum starts to stall.

The reason why I’m sticking with Kidding is Carrey, who embodies the show’s delicately combative tone, practically daring you to look away from this inscrutable character. Jeff has a benign naivety — he possesses Fred Rogers’ smiling, slightly awkward sweetness — but he’s also not above engaging in crass behavior in response to his life unraveling. (Jeff doesn’t like curse words, but he’s cool with random hookups.) Mr. Pickles is a loving, friendly presence, and what’s thus far interesting about Kidding is where the persona and the real man intersect. The guy on the TV show sings happy songs — the guy in real life is trying to maintain that sunny demeanor, even if every fiber of his being is screaming to unleash the pent-up sorrow and anger he’s feeling.

That tension between comedy and catharsis has long been Carrey’s secret weapon. In films as diverse as The Cable Guy, The Truman Show, Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine, he’s always invited the viewer to notice his characters’ slow fuse, which may detonate at any moment. Most humor neutralizes tension, but Carrey’s comedy resides in the uncomfortable place where that anxiety doesn’t get resolved. You laugh not necessarily because something’s hilarious — but because you hope it’ll bring a little relief.

Anxiety pervades Kidding, whose ironic title suggests the show’s not-quite-funny ethos. There are comedic scenarios throughout the first four episodes, including the introduction of Jeff’s depressed sister Deirdre (Catherine Keener), who’s coming to terms with her own screwed-up marriage, but Holstein and Carrey force you to get acclimated to a world in which a soft but persistent sense of melancholy hovers over everything.

Carrey’s career has stumbled lately, either because of uninspired sequels (Dumb and Dumber To) or unsuccessful indie/low-budget projects (The Bad Batch, Dark Crimes). His performance, of sorts, in Jim & Andy is the most riveting thing he’s done in a while, establishing himself as a Zen-like seeker of wisdom and enlightenment far removed from the shallow commercial concerns of Hollywood. (That and his pungent political paintings helped create the impression of a guy who’s just going to do whatever he wants, consequences or A-list status be damned.)

But even if he’s not at the same heights as he was during the late 1990s and early 2000s, his unsteady energy makes Kidding engrossing. (If anything, our recognition of his diminished industry status plays into our appreciation of this slowly deflating character.) Carrey seems at ease with the duality of a children’s entertainer struggling with the complicated adult emotions he’s facing in the wake of grief. That duality is what’s made Carrey so emotional and vulnerable on screen. His talent has found the perfect vehicle in Jeff, who (like the actor) seems to be wrestling between his light and dark sides. Kidding can be awfully cutesy, but you may end up rooting for Jeff — or, at the very least, for Carrey himself.

Here are a few other takeaways from Kidding. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Judy Greer is great on the show — and I hope she gets more to do.

In 2014, Judy Greer published a memoir entitled I Don’t Know What You Know Me From, a reference to a familiar lament of many character actors and other non-superstars who get recognized in public but not for any specific role. (The bystander will invariably say something like, “Hey, wait, what do I know you from?” — and then expect the actor to provide the answer.) Subtitled Confessions of a Co-Star, Greer’s book talks about the quirks of having a career like hers — she’s famous, been in a ton of great stuff (Arrested Development, Archer, The Descendants), but also still somewhat anonymous. (“It always comes in handy, definitely,” Greer said at the time of her book’s release about random strangers’ difficulty in placing her. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds — I get to have a great career and play great roles and work with great people, and I can go to Target whenever I want.”)

The consummate Girl Next Door or Best Friend, Greer plays lots of girlfriends, wives and moms who are on the sidelines while the action’s happening elsewhere. (Blink and you’ll miss her in Jurassic World, The 15:17 to Paris and the Ant-Man movies.) But in Kidding, there’s a chance that she might get to be a more substantial character.

On the show, she’s Jill, who left Jeff in large part because of their son’s death. The exact reasons shouldn’t be revealed — they’re an emotional highlight of an upcoming episode — but suffice it to say that Greer takes a seemingly straightforward ex-wife role and brings something really touching to it.

The actress has done good dramatic work before, but she’s still probably best known for her comedies. (“Say goodbye to these!”) Jill has the potential to be one of her best serious roles, providing us with the perspective of what it would be like to be married to a popular kids’ performer who’s as devoted to his fans as he is his family — and whose priorities can sometimes be a bit skewed.

If Jeff is a hopeless oddball, then Jill has to be the rational one — the person in their relationship who, by default, must be mature and responsible. I hope Kidding continues exploring the difficulties of such an arrangement — and that the writers give Greer more room to roam. Hopefully people will keep leaving her alone at Target, though.

#2. Traumatized kids can exhibit lots of extreme behavior — but probably not like how it’s depicted in ‘Kidding.’

In an upcoming episode, an eight-year-old girl inexplicably starts occasionally raising her arms and screaming without warning. At first, it’s comedic, but then it gets troubling — what’s going on with her? A doctor suggests that it might be similar to Moro reflex, which is a condition in which newborns instinctively start to brace themselves if they feel like they’re going to be dropped. Basically, it’s an evolutionary instinct that helps the infant survive.

The doctor, however, also mentions that the girl’s odd behavior may be the result of regression, which was brought on by trauma. (We won’t reveal what that trauma could be, but let’s just say she’s got good reason to be a little freaked out.)

Not having kids, I was curious about Moro reflex. This kinda upsetting video demonstrates the reflex pretty effectively.

But what about this notion of regression? How exactly does it work? And is it anything like how it’s portrayed in Kidding?

Digging around online, I discovered that regression was coined by Sigmund Freud, who considered it a defense mechanism deployed by individuals to cope with difficult circumstances. In their paper “Regression: Diagnosis, Evaluation and Management,” doctors Hermioni N. Lokko and Theodore A. Stern write, “Regression is typical in normal childhood, and it can be caused by stress, by frustration or by a traumatic event. Children usually manifest regressive behavior to communicate their distress.” Regression can also happen in adulthood: “In essence, individuals revert to a point in their development when they felt safer and when stress was nonexistent, or when an all-powerful parent or another adult would have rescued them.”

Okay, but do kids tend to raise their arms over their head and shout at the top of their lungs? Is that normal? Well, kinda. According to Lokko and Stern, “Many children (e.g., when tired, hungry or afraid) have temper tantrums (expressions of strong emotions) on a daily basis until they are 3 or 4 years old. … Some of the behaviors associated with childhood tantrums include shouting, screaming, crying, falling to the floor, flailing their extremities, hitting, kicking, throwing items, and having breath-holding spells. Tantrums may also start with shouting and angry outbursts followed by sobbing, withdrawing and seeking comfort. Adults with temper tantrums have them for the same reasons as children (i.e., being distressed).”

It sounds like the authors don’t think Kidding’s characters should ignore the girl’s outbursts and hope they go away on their own, though. “Addressing the underlying unmet need in the child usually corrects the regressive behavior,” they write, later adding, “Any clinician working with a patient who appears regressed should explore and evaluate the patient to rule out serious medical and psychiatric conditions and to inform treatment strategies. Ignoring regression usually exacerbates the behavior.”

#3. Let’s remember that really dumb anti-NRA song Jim Carrey did.

As part of his desire to be more politically outspoken, Carrey decided in 2013 to hit back at the NRA’s smothering of sensible gun-control legislation after tragic shootings in Sandy Hook and elsewhere. While many would feel sympathetic to Carrey’s cause, one wishes his resulting protest had been a little better. Or a lot better. Or even halfway decent.

The comic teamed up with the L.A. indie-rock collective Eels to record “Cold Dead Hand,” which is a satire of old-school country that references former NRA president Charlton Heston’s famous declaration that Second Amendment critics could take his gun when they pried it “from my cold dead hands.” Carrey went on to produce a Funny or Die music video that was a parody of Hee-Haw in which he played Heston, amping up the shtick to an irritating degree.

The clip was among the most popular ever for Funny or Die, generating 2.8 million views in less than two weeks. But as you’d imagine, conservatives hated it, prompting Carrey to write an op-ed explaining his position and speaking out against those who criticized him. “These thugs, though menacing, are a minority but they will have their way if good people don’t step forward now and make a difference,” he wrote. “Every American has the right to speak their mind. Every American has the right to bear arms. But it is up to every American to draw the line when it comes to the type of guns that are considered a reasonable means of self-defense.”

Too bad the song is kinda dumb — and that the video is even lamer. There’s nothing more depressing and awkward than worthy political commentary completely ruined by its heavy-handed execution.