Review: ‘Mr. Popper’s Penguins’

Jim Carrey is the human. 20th Century Fox
Jim Carrey is the human. 20th Century Fox

1. There was a time that Jim Carrey's popularity was seen as a semi-legitimate threat to The Republic, a sign that American culture was rotten and decadent and infantile. It became a badge of pride, courage even, to stand up in refutation of Carrey, his funny faces, his butt-talking, his catchphrases aimed directly at the seven-year-old in all of us. A common refrain at the time of "Ace Ventura"'s then-shocking success: "In 30 years, Jim Carrey will be extremely popular in France." The implication was clear: This guy is for morons, and it'll be a happier day when we forget about him. He was an embarrassing fad, a tamagotchi, or maybe a Furbie.

2. This is particularly odd to think about now, because Carrey -- for all his weirdness as a person -- has morphed into almost a classical, old-school movie star. I don't mean that in a Bogart or Cary Grant way: Let's not talk crazy. But Carrey has gained a sort of effortless charisma as he's gotten older, age naturally dulling his more untamed, exhibitionistic tendencies and leaving only his natural physical comedic talents and, of course, that infamous rubber face. That agile face once made him a freak, but in the last decade, he's learned to harness it and make it look ... well, like everyone's face. The man who does the world's greatest Jimmy Stewart impression, if you can believe it, is actually sort of close to our Jimmy Stewart: He's light on his feet, affable, self-mocking and an entertaining enough performer that you don't mind watching him step out of the movie and solo for a while. "Mr. Popper's Penguins" is far from the greatest showcase of what Carrey can do -- it's not even in the top 10 -- but it might be the ideal one: It puts him in a boring, hackeneyed story and lets him sort of just riff on the edges and keep things moving along. This film would be torturous if the lead actor were, say, Brendan Fraser, or Ashton Kutcher. With Carrey in the lead, though, you find yourself nodding along agreeably, not really engaged, but also not offended, and next thing you know, it's over. That's what a movie star's job is, right there.

3. The story is an updated version of the original kids' book, which, sort of amazingly, is almost 80 years old. Carrey plays Tom Popper, a real estate developer who is divorced and doesn't spend nearly enough time with his children. This is the same movie Carrey has made three times already. In "Liar Liar," he was a jerk unti he couldn't lie; in "Bruce Almighty" he was a jerk until he became God; in "Yes Man," he was a jerk until he couldn't say no. Here: He's a jerk until his father dies and leaves him six penguins. Because it's Carrey, you don't really dislike him that much when he's a "jerk;" you're just waiting for him to struggle with the transformation. Carrey's Popper is an amiable sort of jerk anyway; he's just obsessed with work (I enjoyed the moment when he exclaimed, "Thank God, it's Monday!" I know that feeling) and doesn't have enough time for his kids. He ends up having more time for them when the kids come around. This movie doesn't have a lot of conflict.

4. This Carrey "jerk-to-good-dad" morphing is a little less fun here, if just because the penguins aren't near as interesting or as cute as the movie thinks they are. (Even if you think penguins are the most adorable species on earth, the scene where a penguins excretes on Carrey's head will have you testing that thesis.) And because Popper decides to have the penguins live in his apartment, and because the film needs a villain, the movie makes the odd decision to turn the zoo -- the "zoo!" -- into a bad guy. (It is not fun to see zoo workers made out to be pratfalling putzes. Zoo workers are nice! They work at the zoo because they love animals!) But Popper's warming relationship with his ex-wife is surprisingly heartfelt, the kids avoid that "Just Go With It" sitcom-style wisecracking and there's even a clever scene where the penguins slide down the halls of the Guggenheim. (That was a good idea.) In case you were in doubt of the good intentions of "Mr. Popper's Penguins," they've even cast Angela Lansbury. You've gotta have a colder heart than I do to not cut a movie with Angela Lansbury in it a break.

5. And at the middle of it all is Carrey, coasting along, not expending a lot of effort, but still understanding the right story beats to insert a jolt of daffiness. I particularly enjoyed the movie's climactic scene, when he just stops and does a little off-topic monologue, mostly for himself. The riff has nothing to do with the film, but doesn't seem jarring, either; I'm impressed that director Mark Waters left it in. Carrey has reached the point in his career where he's fun to watch in just about anything, even if he's not trying all that hard. "Mr. Popper's Penguins" has nothing new to offer and is forgotten within minutes of seeing it ... but that sort of thing has its charms, too. Carrey gave a terrific performance in the weird little "I Love You Philip Morris" last year, and he followed it up with this low-key, unassuming family film. Even minor Carrey is undeniably entertaining. Thank heavens it wasn't Brendan Fraser.

Grade: B-