Jim Carrey at his best is one of the funniest performers on the planet. Like most great comics, he also decided fairly early that he wanted to be taken “seriously” as an actor, and so he traded in “Ace Ventura” and “Dumb and Dumber” for films like “The Majestic” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
It’s probably no use trying to convince him, at this late date, especially when his limbs may not be limber, that there’s more artistry in his rubber-man goofiness than in his Oscar-bait earnestness. In “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” he’s playing a divorced real estate shark who flips New York landmarks and has fallen out of favor with both his kids (Maxwell Perry Cotton, Madeline Carroll) and ex-wife (Carla Gugino). A surprise inheritance from his globe-trotting father – a shipment of penguins from the Antarctic – brings out his cuddly side and inevitably bonds the family.
It’s probably futile by now to hope that Carrey might showcase his comedy in movies that aren’t as mushy with family-entertainment values as this one. But the good news is that, even though one must pace oneself through the dull parts, usually involving Mr. Popper’s dullish family, he’s in pretty good form whenever he’s getting physical – like when he mimics a runner in super-slow-motion – and especially when hanging out with a half dozen penguins, which is much of the time. (It’s also good news that the birds, though CGI-enabled, are actual gentoo penguins.)
Mark Waters, who directed from material based on the celebrated children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, has a flair for goofiness that matches Carrey’s own, and there are scenes between the birds and Mr. Popper in his sleek Manhattan duplex that are peerlessly silly. (In some ways the film reminded me of the 1989 Tom Hanks comedy “Turner & Hooch,” which featured Hanks as a neatness freak and the plug-ugly dog that invades his space.)
I wish there had been even more going on here with Carrey – maybe an outing to the zoo where he gets to imitate every animal in captivity. He’s held captive by the maudlin moments in “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” but he breaks through when it counts. Grade: B (Rated PG for mild, rude humor and some language.)