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Criticism Reflections

The Existential Clown

I haven’t yet decided whether James Parker’s piece in The Atlantic on Jim Carrey, “The Existential Clown,” is profound or pretentious. Sometimes the line can be awfully thin. And at times – James Parker seems to be stretching his points a bit too much:

Who knows how the self became such a problem, or when we began to feel the falseness in our nature? “There’s another man within me, that’s angry with me,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici, three and a half centuries before the scene in Liar Liar where the hero stuffs his own head into the toilet bowl.

Yet, for all of that, I have the feeling Parker is onto something profound – and I am always interested in the profundities that can be understood in a deep reading of our pop culture.  Here’s a taste of his thesis:

Jim Carrey will loom large in our shattered posterity, I believe, because his filmography amounts to a uniquely sustained engagement with the problem of the self…

Movie after movie finds Carrey either confronting God (“Smite me, O mighty Smiter!” he roars in Bruce Almighty) or enacting, violently and outrageously, some version of the dilemma identified by the Spanish existentialist José Ortega y Gasset—that man, as he exists in the world, is “equivalent to an actor bidden to represent the personage which is his real I.” One wonders what the French make of him. Here in America, we’ve been content to regard him as a blockbustering goofball, but in France, beautiful France, where philosophy is king and Jerry Lewis is awarded the Légion d’Honneur, might not they be readying garlands for Jim Carrey?

Yes Man, out this month, is Carrey’s latest existential parable. If, as has been speculated, Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard shared a libertine moment in the salons and cellars of 19th-century Copenhagen, they could have brainstormed this movie over drinks.

I forward it on to Andrew Sullivan, who despite his place at The Atlantic, might be able to judge whether this piece merits a Poseur Award or not.

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