Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
The Mask: Platinum Edition, New Line, widescreen 1.85:1, pan&scan, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Digital Stereo, subtitles: English, French, Spanish, double side-single layer, 31 chapters, rated PG-13, 101 min., $24.98, street date 3/25/97.
Billy Madison: Universal, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], Spanish & French Digital Stereo, single side-single layer, 16 chapters, production notes, cast & crew biographies, theatrical trailer, rated PG-13, 90 min., $24.98, street date 11/17/98.
The Mask: Directed by Charles Russell. Starring Jim Carrey, Peter Riegert, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck, Cameron Diaz, Max.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Visual Effects, 1995.
Jim Carrey stars as a mild-mannered bank clerk Stanley Ipkiss, who discovers a mysterious ancient mask that brings his inner most desires to wild, screaming life! Now, together with his sidekick Milo, this wise-cracking green tornado is taking Edge City over the top in this romantic-action-comedy that will leave you S-s-s-s-smokin'!
Billy Madison: Directed by Tamra Davis. Starring Adam Sandler, Darren McGavin, Bridgette Wilson, Bradley Whitford, Josh Mostel, Norm MacDonald.
He's heir to the Madison Hotel millions, but in order to win his father's respect, and his Fortune 500 company, grown-up, goof-off Billy must repeat all 12 grades of school - in just 24 weeks! Comedy superstar Adam Sandler stars with beautiful Bridgette Wilson in this laugh-a-minute hit where the subject is always fun! Features songs by Electric Light Orchestra, The Jackson 5, The Cars, Culture Club, The Ramones and Styx.
Picture/Sound/Extras The Mask (B+/A-/C+) / Billy Madison (A-/B-/D)
You know that old expression about how no one ever went broke underestimating the American public. According to critics, this theory can largely explain the extremely successful film careers of both Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler. Both these gentlemen have truly cleaned up at the box office in recent years, despite frequent pans from critics and accusations of being both puerile and inane.
I think a lot of these critics really need to lighten up, or to at least be more consistent. On one hand, they applaud the disgusting non-humor of a piece of crap like There's Something About Mary but they knock Sandler's allegedly infantile jokes in a somewhat funny movie like The Waterboy? Clearly I won't defend either Sandler or Carrey as being bastions of sophistication and subtlety, but for the most part, they are personable and their movies are entertaining and amusing, which is all we really need.
Ironically, I viewed both these actors in extremely different lights at the start of their movie careers. Carrey, who I only knew through his annoying work on In Living Color, I really couldn't stand. When Ace Ventura came out in early 1994, well, let's just say that nothing there even came close to changing my mind; just more over the top stupidity from old Rubberface. (For the record, I know that Ace wasn't Carrey's first movie, or even his first starring role, but it was the first film in which he featured prominently since attaining some measure of stardom through In Living Color. So there!)
When The Mask came out a few months after Ace, I held similarly low expectations about Carrey's work. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the results. Stanley Ipkiss/The Mask seemed like virtually the perfect role to match Carrey's talents. One one hand, he got to display his "over the top" tendencies in a wonderful manner through a literal cartoon character; The Mask was supposed to be larger than life, so the higher the degree of mugging and hamminess, the better.
But Carrey also got to show that he could play a real character through his portrayal of average-guy/semi-loser Ipkiss. It's become somewhat fashionable over the years for people to claim that they enjoyed Carrey's work as Ipkiss more than as The Mask, but I won't say that; The Mask's antics are what give the film spark and excitement. However, his performance as Ipkiss grounds the film and offers a character about whom we can care; Carrey creates a somewhat cartoony but surprisingly real and human character in Ipkiss, and that achievement really makes The Mask a movie that's more than just a series of absurd comic sequences.
The Mask offered the first role through which Carrey showed he could play characters who weren't absurd imbeciles. It also gave us our first glimpse of hot star Cameron Diaz, and I'd argue it's our BEST glimpse of her. Okay, partly this is because I don't think she's ever looked hotter than in The Mask; she's not really my type, but she scorches here.
However, although The Mask was her first movie, Diaz gives a nicely understated performance as the stereotypical blonde bombshell. She has even less to work with here than Carrey does as Ipkiss, but she takes her opportunities to make Tina believable and sympathetic. Good work also comes from veteran actor Peter Riegert, who plays police Lieutenant Kellaway with appropriately comic levels of cynicism and gruffness, and Jim Doughan's Doyle, who provides a hilariously innocent counterpoint to Kellaway's harshness.
Special attention also has to be made of Milo the dog. Okay, I'm a serious dog lover who has been known to cry, "Go Poochy! You can do it, Poochy!" when movie canines are endangered (ala Vivica Fox's dog in Independence Day). Still, Milo clearly stands out among performing pups. He works very well as an integral part of the plot, and he offers quite a few solid comedic moments. Apparently Carrey improvised neatly with many of Milo's miscues; it would have been great if they'd included some of those outtakes here.
I have much less positive feelings about Peter Greene's work as heavy Dorian. Greene's a capable actor, as shown through his work in films like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, but no one seems to have told him that The Mask was supposed to be a comic book comedy. Greene plays Dorian with a seriousness and malice that simply seem out of place in a film such as this. In a way, it's somewhat refreshing to see that kind of acting; theoretically, the harshness of Dorian should add a realistic flavor to this fantasy. However, that doesn't happen here. In the end, Dorian simply seems like a character from another movie and Greene's scenes make for jarring transitions from the rest of the film.
I also found Richard Jeni's work as Ipkiss's smooth hipster buddy Charlie to be lacking. Like Greene's turn as Dorian, I felt like Jeni's Charlie seemed to be part of a different movie, though for less tangible reasons. I guess it never made sense to me that a modest schlub like Stanley would be friends with a butt-kissing poseur like Charlie, and Jeni's portrayal offers no clues about this attraction. He creates an absolutely charmless character whose presence grates on the viewer at virtually all times.
Much attention was paid to the groundbreaking special effects in The Mask upon its release in 1994; the computer work seemed to effectively create characters who became cartoons. For the most part, these effects hold up well, though as time goes by, they definitely will start to look more and more phony. Thankfully, the charm of The Mask does not depend on the believability of its special effects. That aspect remains solidly grounded in the charm of most of the performers and the wit with which the plot is executed. Five years after its release, The Mask remains arguably Carrey's most effective performance and film.
Unlike the antipathy with which I regarded Carrey, I was already very fond of Adam Sandler before his first real starring role in 1995's Billy Madison. I'd watched him on Saturday Night Live for a few years and I thought he was terrific; his absurd Weekend Update bit about cheap Halloween costumes kids could make from items they found around the house (such as going as Crazy Spoonhead) remains one of the funniest SNL routines I've ever seen.
As such, my opinion of Sandler could have dropped after I watched Billy Madison, and to be truthful, it wasn't a tremendously memorable film. However, while it may not be on anyone's list of comedy classics, Billy Madison provides enough solid laughs throughout its 90 minutes that it qualifies as a solidly entertaining movie and may be the funniest Sandler's yet made.
Billy Madison works upon a slight but clever premise: rich-boy slacker Billy has to repeat grades one through twelve or his hotel magnate father will give the company to an ass-kissing weasel (Bradley Whitford as Eric Gordon) when he retires. Improbable and ridiculous? Sure! But nonetheless chock full of comedic opportunities.
Some of the film's best realized moments arise from the absurdity of an adult - even an immature one like Billy - attending a class with quite young children, and it helps that Sandler plays the role with great charm and occasional innocence; while bits of adult Billy pop out from time to time, he really gets immersed in the grade school culture. Half the humor of the movie comes from simply watching Billy respond to kids in a kid-like way, and many funny scenes come from watching Billy use his adulthood to his advantage; I hate myself afterwards, but I'm always entertained by watching Billy terrorize the first graders at dodgeball.
Clearly this isn't a terribly demanding role, but Sandler nonetheless makes Billy real enough that the viewer roots for him. Yes, its predictable that we see Billy grow from spoiled brat to fairly responsible member of society, but Sandler plays Billy with such an ingratiating ease that we willingly go along for the ride.
The rest of the cast helps make Billy Madison a very entertaining and amusing film as well. Darren McGavin has little to do in his role as Billy's father, but he takes his small moments and makes them interesting. Gordon is one of those actors who has the role of sniveling weasel down pat; he's cartoony, but it's a cartoony movie, so that's fine. Bridgette Wilson grounds the film to a degree with her part as Billy's second grade teacher/love interest; since she's supposed to be the "adult" in the movie, she doesn't get to do much of great interest, but she performs the role nicely and she certainly adds a tremendous amount of sex appeal to the role. (As an aside, I've worked for a public school system for six years and I've met many teachers over that span. Where the hell are the ones who look like Bridgette Wilson? I'm still searching!) Finally, both Steve Buscemi and Chris Farley provide terrific cameos.
In the end, it's a good thing that Billy Madison boasts some strong performances, because that's really what keeps the movie afloat. Besides its interesting premise, the film offers little unusual, and much of the humor would have been pedestrian at best in the hands of less capable performers. As it stands, Billy Madison offers a very funny and entertaining time; it's the perfect movie to watch when you just want to relax and lay back for a little while.
The DVD releases of both The Mask and Billy Madison effectively bring these films to home video. As far as image quality goes, Billy Madison gets a slight nod. It's quite nice looking, with consistently vibrant and accurate colors, a sharp picture, and very little evidence of grain. The Mask is nearly as good, but it suffers from the fact that most of it takes place at night. As such, some scenes seem a little muddy or hazy. Still, it offers a very satisfactory viewing experience.
Both films offer Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mixes, and in this case, The Mask clearly wins the prize. It boasts very effective and involving audio, with active use of the rear channels. While this means that we get some nice sound effects, it's really the musical numbers that benefit most from the digital treatment. These sequences sound absolutely great, with fine definition between the channels and very clear and crisp audio. Bass response also is well above average; music in movies frequently seems to lack much low end, but that's not the case here. The Cuban Pete number makes for some serious demo material.
You won't use the soundtrack of Billy Madison to show off your system, however. It's adequate but completely unspectacular. Dialogue and effects sound consistently fine, and the music seems decent. The rear channels offer occasional and slight ambient sounds, but nothing much. I don't expect much from a soundtrack for a film like this, and Billy Madison matches those expectations; there's nothing really wrong with it, but it certainly doesn't do anything to stand out from the crowd.
In the area of supplemental materials, The Mask also wins, though it's not the runaway victory we just saw from the soundtracks. New Line have developed a stunning reputation for very complete special edition DVDs; in light of that, The Mask clearly disappoints. It should be noted that The Mask WAS one of their early efforts, however, and was simply an adaptation of a previously-issued laserdisc set. (In that regard, the DVD's a bargain; the LD listed for $69.95!)
Anyway, the highlight of The Mask's bonus materials remains the DVD's audio commentary from director Charles Russell. I usually don't much care for "director only" tracks, since they tend to be overly scene specific. However, Russell brings a nice sense of energy and excitement to his monologue, and he provides a solid level of information about the film with tidbits such as the fact The Mask was originally conceived as the first in a new series of horror films. I like this track very much (although I do wonder what happened to the planned sequel; the commentary was recorded no later than 1996, but I've never heard anything about it since then. Maybe Carrey's salary made it impractical).
Other than the audio commentary, The Mask provides two deleted scenes - neither of which is missed - plus a trailer and the usual cast biographies. (Surprisingly, the DVD omits a photo gallery that existed on the laserdisc.) Such is the evolving nature of the DVD business that two years ago, this was a nice set of extras, but now it's barely above average.
The same cannot be said for the supplementary materials included on the Billy Madison DVD - they always sucked. All we get here are some mildly interesting production notes, standard cast and crew bios, and three trailers (one for Billy Madison and two for other Sandler films. Yes, I would have dearly loved an audio commentary from Sandler (I am, and always will be, one hellacious audio commentary loving dude!) but that wasn't to be - alas!
Anyway, despite their various shortcomings, both The Mask and Billy Madison offer consistently entertaining and frequently amusing experiences. While both DVDs could have been better, neither possesses any significant shortfalls that would cause me to dissuade you from purchasing either of them. In the long run, The Mask probably provides the better DVD experience, but since both titles retail for $24.98, you can't go wrong either way.
Current as of 3/21/99
Roger Ebert: The Mask--"Carrey demonstrates that he does have a genuine gift."