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Opinion | Eternal sunshine of a television mind

Jim Carrey and Michel Gondry team up again for 'Kidding'

A still from ‘Kidding’, starring Jim Carrey as the television personality Jeff Piccirillo.
A still from ‘Kidding’, starring Jim Carrey as the television personality Jeff Piccirillo.

There’s something trustworthy about a cardigan.

In the children’s educational show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001, Fred Rogers made a ritual of entering a set representing his home, taking off his suit jacket and putting on a cardigan, and then taking off his dress shoes to put on his sneakers. These simple motions at the opening of every episode assumed a profoundly welcoming effect as we—children of all ages who watched this unassuming gentleman tell us about culture and crafts and creativity—got used to watching a man taking off his shoes, not a familiar television sight. We warmed up to someone who seemed to actually be letting us in. The set of his home began to feel like his own home.

This blurring of the line between person and character is at the heart of the show Kidding, streaming in India on Hotstar. Primarily directed by the great Michel Gondry and starring rubber-faced revolutionary Jim Carrey, the show provides these men—who once created the spellbinding film Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind—a dark new canvas to examine the breakdown of a mind defined by its stubborn spotlessness. Carrey plays Jeff Piccirillo, a man grieving for a lost son, but also Mr Pickles, iconic television entity. “There’s two of you," explains his producer Sebastian. “There’s Mr Pickles, the $112 million licensing industry of edutaining toys, DVDs and books… and then there’s Jeff, a separated husband and grieving father."

Never the two should meet, emphasizes Sebastian. Though given that Sebastian (played by the eternally compelling Frank Langella) is also Jeff’s father, it may be hard for everyone to stick to colouring between the lines.

Jim Carrey plays Jeff with the bewildered air of a spaniel who has just been smacked on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper right after he has rolled over on demand. He is always at a loss to realize what he did wrong—his every action is geared towards being considerate. He is so focussed on saying and doing only the right thing that he considers giving a fist-bump a minor act of violence. This is an immediately haunting performance, thanks to the unnerving combination of melancholy dripping from Carrey’s eyes and the tender smile he deploys, head cocked, when talking to people with love and exaggerated empathy. Only, he doesn’t know it’s exaggerated.

The concept of a universally beloved television personality coming unglued takes on renewed relevance at a time when people we trusted on television have turned out to be monsters all along, though Jeff seems—at least in the early episodes—less malevolent and more malcontent. The restlessness bubbles inside him, and there are few actors better suited to convey inner turmoil.

Mr Rogers was the opposite of a divisive figure. This year, a critically embraced documentary on his life and methods—Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, directed by Morgan Neville—became the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all time, and any doubts about his lovability should be laid to rest by the news that he will be played in an upcoming biopic by America’s dad, Tom Hanks. Rogers was an outspoken man, broadcasting an episode telling children about death, back in 1970—something Carrey’s Mr Pickles fights for—and arguing against a cut in funding for public television in a US Senate Committee hearing. This impassioned and articulate clip is an internet favourite, and duly referenced on Kidding.

Kidding opens on an episode of Conan, with the lanky talk show host being briefed not to ask any questions about Phil, Jeff’s son who died in an accident the year before. The frequently sarcastic Conan O’Brien has an on-screen approach diametrically opposed to Mr Pickles, and treats the friendly guest with mild snark before Mr Pickles fishes out an inventive ukulele-puppet. When Conan asks who that is, he is jeered at by his other guest, B-movie action star Danny Trejo (appearing as himself), who says “Everybody knows Uke-Larry!" Mr Pickles soon has the entire audience singing along, including the camera operators and, eventually, Conan. It’s hard not to be charmed by his earnestness.

Gondry has directed six of the 10 episodes in the first season, and there is an unsurprising sense of whimsy and play through the visual aesthetic, even (or especially) as the subject matter gets darker. As a sort of stand-in for Gondry, Catherine Keener plays a puppeteer whose idea of punishment is withholding baths from her daughter and “giving her body odour" till she eats her vegetables. The show is, in a way, a critique of the need to be picture-perfect, a need Jeff—who had a wife named Jill and twin sons Will and Phil—is obsessed by. Even his revolt against self-image is sounded by a cry nobody else is allowed to hear. He is, after all, a man who calls his viewers his friends.

This is a show with boundaries drawn in crayon. They’re bright and messy and arbitrary, and they get drawn over by new ones before you know it. Who better to wear crayons on his face than a master clown with operatic pathos? In the 1990s, Jim Carrey was the highest-paid movie star in the world. He has since speculated on the nature of fame, through movies like The Truman Show and Man On The Moon, and through recent red-carpet interviews where he has sounded admittedly strung out. His previous collaboration with Gondry taught us to hold on to our memories, even the rough ones. Kidding pushes Carrey to startling extremes as he hunts for joy. This one lets us watch the performer take his shoes off.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @RajaSen

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