The comic/actor returns to movie screens this weekend in the family flick “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”
“Yeah, when I was doing it, and even when I chose it, there were people in my camp who where saying, ‘You really want to do a penguin movie? You know, a PENGUIN movie, children’s movie kind of thing?’ ” Carrey recalls.
“But I just went with the instinct of, ‘I love frickin’ penguins.’ ”
In “Popper’s,” Carrey plays a hard-driving, divorced businessman whose priorities start to change after he inherits a half-dozen penguins.
At first glance, it looks like a reworking of one of his biggest hits, “Liar Liar” (1997), another comedy about a wayward dad who finds his lost soul only after going through an extraordinary adventure.
It also might appear that another one-time hot comic actor is trying to salvage his box-office cred by going the family film route. (Think Steve Martin’s “Cheaper by the Dozen” films or Eddie Murphy’s “Dr. Doolittle” flicks.)
But look again and you’ll see that “Popper” is none of the above, with fleshed-out, shades-of-gray characters (and no less than Angela Lansbury in the supporting cast), offering the sort of substance to keep adults engaged as well as the kids.
And while the lead role wasn’t tailor-made for Carrey (it’s based on the Richard and Florence Atwater novel), there’s just enough manic, fast-talking schtick worked into the movie to sate the star’s longtime fans.
“So, this wasn’t the approach of, ‘I’m an alien in this movie and I’m different than everybody else,’ ” Carrey says. “It was, ‘I am every man in this movie, every person who is striving for some sort of personal greatness, or trying to (run) away from their actual feelings.’ That was an important aspect of it.
“And then the bottom line: I love penguins, people love penguins. I go, ‘Jim Carrey. Penguins. Rumble in the jungle. I’m there.’ ”
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the real penguins but the animatronic variety that caused real trouble on the set – thanks to cast and crew’s array of personal-electronic devices messing with the remote-control signals.
“With the (real) penguins, my favorite moment was just the mayhem at the dinner table and stuff that went on after the camera was off,” Carrey said.
“Real penguins, real penguins that were supposed to be kept at bay, sitting in their chairs and eating off the plates and they just went nuts and took over.”
Carrey has alternated between commercial and artsier fare since shortly after his star-making role in “The Mask” (1994). In 1998 he received serious Oscar buzz (though no nomination) for his work in “The Truman Show” and a year later for “Man on the Moon.”
He also got serious in “The Majestic” (2001), “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), “The Number 23” (2007) and “I Love You Phillip Morris” (2009).
At 49, he shows no sign of changing that game plan: alternating comic crowd-pleasers with art-house fare.
“It should be impossible that a guy who talked through his butt is doing a Peter Weir movie (‘The Truman Show’) about such an important topic as blazing your way through the world and being true to yourself. That generally doesn’t happen,” Carrey says.
“But I really believe that people are as limited as they believe they are, and that they just have to have the nerve enough to say, ‘Yeah, I know you told me I’m not supposed to do this, but I’m going to do it and see what happens.’
“You know, I’ve gone so far out this way and so far out this way that sometimes it’s when I do a film like (‘Popper’s’), they kind of meet in the middle, and I get the best of both worlds.”