The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Y2K FILMS: ‘THE GRINCH’ AT 20

The responsibilities of the CIA are known to be vast and never-ending, in ways that tend to involve foreign intelligence or government spending. But whether it be preventing terrorism or a covert military operation, the tasks are normally in favor of supposedly governing this American nation. And while it may be a stigma for the CIA to be shrouded in mystery, you may be surprised at how they tie to Jim Carrey. Fresh off his portrayal of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, Carrey immediately followed such a performance that supposedly “drove him psychotic” perhaps way too soon. Because this was a performance calling for something even more, including a makeup process quite difficult to adore. And even with famed makeup artist Rick Baker at the helm, for Jim Carrey it did nothing but overwhelm. Nearly suffocating in a costume of yak hair dyed green and a wrinkly latex facial sprawl, the frustration was enough for Carrey to kick a hole in his trailer wall. He found it impossible to thrive, and compared the makeup process to being “buried alive”. Until producer Brian Grazer sought up an unlikely friend who happened to be a specialist for the CIA, who immediately got himself on a plane that very Friday. It was there in which Carrey was locked in a room with him and another official, who taught him methods unconventional yet beneficial. Explaining to Carrey how CIA agents would frame their thinking in the midst of torture or hostile interrogation, this helped him create an almost Zen-like state of mind that would occupy his head during the makeup’s duration. It’s unclear whether Carrey himself was ever tortured in that room, but the performance that caught the eye of audiences that following year would probably make that easy to assume. Because with that much facial contortion and nearly-inhuman physical activity, you too would had to have found ways to relieve yourself of such captivity. Perhaps twenty years later you may roll your eyes or even cringe, but Carrey’s performance is somehow just a faint peep into the nihilistic madness of Ron Howard’s The Grinch. Or How the Grinch Stole Christmas if you had wanted me to ruin a perfectly good rhyme, for which I definitely do not have time.

Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel – author of the beloved book of the same name, had passed nearly a decade before the film came. But his widow Audrey had spent an arduous process selling the film rights, to which Ron Howard and producing partner Brian Grazer took to tremendous heights. Over time and through various script revisions (including from writers of Seinfeld), the final product can only be compared to the experience provided by a mind-melt. From the moment we soar into the microscopic world of a snowflake, there is no undoing of the path you will take. Through prosthetics used to create the Who citizens of Whoville that seemingly came from a bad dream, and a surplus of asymmetrical Dutch angles that would make Wes Anderson scream. It is borderline impossible to jot down Howard’s adaptation to a few lines, as its relentlessly energetic pacing only further, and strictly, confines. Yet to this day it maintains its existence as a product of pure curiosity with much strength, whether it’s the film’s underlying critique of commercialism, or of course the nearly two-hour length. The film’s decision to draw itself directly from Chuck Jones’ 1966 TV special is obvious with nearly each scene, including the cementing of the Grinch’s color as a rich green. Did you forget that The Grinch had no color in the original book? Perhaps that fact may leave you, as the kids say, shook. But that’s for another time, as we haven’t even fully delved into Jim Carrey’s contribution under the color of lime.

Giving a character known for an arc as simplistic as hating Christmas then eventually coming to embrace it allows for it to be easily expanded, but to witness the Grinch not only be given a nearly-tragic backstory but also see him as an animatronic infant raised by a gay couple may not exactly be what fans demanded. But even before he grows into the curmudgeon we know him to be, we witness Carrey inhabiting a take on the character that is so animated that even the Chuck Jones special can’t compare to this kind of degree. You may buy this a load of crud, but as far as the 2000’s go, the way Jim Carrey completely disappears into The Grinch can only be compared to Daniel Day-Lewis turning into Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. In a way that even if you never doubt that underneath the character is that very actor, the transformation they undergo is enough to never be a distractor. It’s enough effort on his part even in spite of the humor that is so bluntly crass, from The Grinch flying directly into the bosom of Martha May Whovier, to him luring a sleeping Jeffrey Tambor into kissing his dog’s … uh, [redacted]. But the jokes that are nothing but juvenile is only for his performance to outweigh. It is a mere sight from which you couldn’t possibly look away. And Ron Howard knows this with utmost grace, literally dropping frames in shots just to emphasize how much Carrey is willing to stretch his own face. Yet he still allows the character to over time become more hearty, especially throughout the chaos involving the fact that the Whos literally throw a key party. It’s a performance that quite honestly should’ve swept award shows completely clean; even knowing that it’s the second time he has played a live-action cartoon with a face colored green.

Howard’s camera refuses to stay still. Tilting and spinning so often that to hope for some kind of levity takes as much effort as pushing a sleigh up a hill. Perhaps there’s more to this direction than simply keeping the audience engaged like I initially thought, as if maybe the aggressive commodification of the Christmas season each year is bound to leave some in an energetic drought. In this particular mood is Cindy Lou-Who, played by Taylor Momsen and slightly older than the original character’s age of 2. Her character becomes fleshed out enough to be the one responsible for bringing the Grinch down to the Who’s, where he delivers a scathing monologue with the light of a fuse. It’s here where the film’s thematic dancing around of commercialism becomes crystal clear, as the Grinch revels in how each year is an endless cycle of excess that should deprive every Who of cheer. The gifts that are used and then immediately disposed, said with an honesty that is bluntly exposed. And despite the irony of this being a $150 million product released by a major conglomerate, for anyone it shouldn’t take very long, to simply realize that he is nowhere near wrong. At times we all must feel the weight of the season crushing our spirit, and as it gets closer to Christmas, our responsibilities to keep ourselves and our loved ones happy may as well cause us to fear it. This year in itself could potentially be the worst in causing that kind of oppression, as a still-raging pandemic continues to cause massive spikes in depression.

Which is where comfort lends itself in as a desire. Some people may find that in baking, or snuggling up near your hearth in front of a fire. For me, watching movies became my comfort over the last year, with enough seen for my senses to approach degrees I never thought they would come near. Recently I’ve come back around to familiar films in which I should feel that I’ve very much outgrown, but feelings change when you’ve spent this much time living alone. Although with The Grinch I’m not necessarily reminded of my own youth, but rather how a film like this could only have been made in the year 2000…. and uh, that’s the truth. Through the efforts given to bring life to a world rooted in cartoon law, the results still bring some faint glimmers of awe. The idea of filming a big-budget blockbuster on the Universal backlot should feel so dated by this point, and yet the energy Howard brings to each physical set built makes it impossible for the artificiality to disappoint. Of course there are signs everywhere that cause the age of the film to bounce back, like… of course Smash Mouth is on the film’s soundtrack. But age is a word that often leaves people with insecurity and harm, so the word I would rather use is ‘charm’. To which that can be found in nearly every crevice of the production, where the blink- and-you’ll-miss-it energy and Jim Carrey’s once-in-a-lifetime performance converge into Ron Howard’s go-for-broke attempt to entertain through his entire conduction. It’s an exhausting yet arresting work of film art, and getting to see Clint Howard is somehow not even the best part. It’s been a long, long year, so perhaps sit down, open up a can of Who-hash, and let in that infectious early-2000’s cheer.