Not long ago, in the Before Times, talk of masks conjured one precise image in my mind: a snot green face, bald as a ball of Play-Doh, contorted into a roguish smile. And Jim Carrey was the man behind “The Mask,” that deranged comedy about a spineless bank clerk named Stanley Ipkiss who, upon donning an ancient mask, finds his most wanton appetites unleashed.
The movie was the highest grossing of Carrey’s three blockbusters in 1994 — the others were “Dumb and Dumber” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” — and all three helped catapult Carrey to goofball stardom. The story also ushered in what would become Carrey’s signature part: the dual role of straight man and loony maniac. Like Dr. Jekyll, Ipkiss transforms into a frenzied alter ego, a character foible that would be similarly replicated in “Me, Myself & Irene,” “Liar Liar” and “Bruce Almighty.”
This binary form befits a movie that, in style and tone, takes cartoons as its model. “The Mask,” directed by Chuck Russell, was based on a Dark Horse comic, and its special effects (overseen by Industrial Light and Magic) are all googly eyeballs and lolling tongues, steamrollered torsos and twirling blurs. The movie pays overt homage to Looney Tunes: Pictures of Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and the Tasmanian Devil adorn Ipkiss’s apartment and, in one scene, he even plays a videotape of Tex Avery’s “Screwball Classics 2.”
A year after sitting through the gritty nihilism of one of last year’s blockbusters, “Joker,” I found rewatching “The Mask” to be refreshing. In his yellow zoot suit, Ipkiss is less a doom-and-gloom antihero than a child of Avery’s animated golden age, and his world — a made-up city where the grooviest nightclub plays swing music — reflects his 1940s flair. The movie also offered a debut role to Cameron Diaz, who, as a blonde bombshell love interest, is as heavily ogled as Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood.
In one of my favorite scenes, Ipkiss theatrically feigns death in the arms of a foe, only to right himself and accept an Oscar for the performance. At the time, Carrey called his character “Fred Astaire on acid.” Zinging between references faster than I can keep track, “The Mask” feels like cinema itself on acid.