Dr. Seuss’

Among Man on the Moon’s many sins was stifling the malevolent glee that spewed forth from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Cable Guy. Jim Carrey’s impersonation of Andy Kaufman, precise and pointless as a Madame Tussaud figure, made me dread his next turn as someone “real.” Carrey had gotten so ambitiously middlebrow, I wondered if the huge budget for Ron Howard’s Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas was for re-creating the 1966 cartoon frame-by-frame—or perhaps for Carrey’s spending a year on a mountaintop before filming began.

But Carrey gives his loosest, funniest performance in years as the pointy-headed misanthrope, and the generally competent Howard gives him room to work. Carrey races through the movie like a madman, somehow mugging recognizably under all the green putty and yellow contact lenses, long limbs undulating with feline grace around his tufted potbelly. Physically, it’s the best cartoon-to-movie casting since Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in 1980’s Popeye—and it fits Carrey’s personality, too. Just as Carrey’s manic destructiveness is generally more clueless than evil, so the Grinch’s holiday hatred is a medical, not a moral, problem. Knowing that the Grinch’s sudden heart growth will make him one more singing, swaying Who, we’re primed to revel in his bile while supplies last.

At first, things don’t look promising in Howard’s Whoville, despite the fantastic makeup and costumes. The Whos are Seussed more subtly than Carrey, with long eyelashes, big upper teeth, and prosthetics that extend the space between nose and mouth for a cartoon-mouse-like effect. (Although they’re both fine actors, I couldn’t help wondering if Bill Irwin and Christine Baranski were cast for their high little upturned noses.)

For the first 20 minutes or so, these strange creatures scurry through a loud, witless movie. Cameras dip vertiginously through arched stairways, swaying towers, and rolling musical contraptions, for an effect that’s less evocative of holiday-shopping madness than of a nauseating submarine ride. The new rhyming narration is sub-Seussian, and an early scene of teenagers daring each other to touch the Grinch’s door augurs one long evening of winking references to other movies.

Things pick up, though, when the Grinch and his dog, Max, come to town. After knocking down a few Whos, Carrey hits his slapstick stride alone in the post office, whipping jury-duty notices into mailboxes as if they were knives, angrily heaving beribboned boxes this way and that, and riffing in a succession of voices and characters.

Like many manic comics, Carrey never leaves much air for other actors. His last movie focused more on the split-personality battles between Me and Myself than on Irene, and the Grinch’s battles are similarly self-contained. He schemes and slinks and steals alone, and when his humanity is awakened, it’s by faint voices coming from miles away. The scenes up in his spiral lair (reportedly modeled on the Guggenheim) are consistently better than those down in Whoville. Carrey is so stand-alone that he sings “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” to himself while he builds his stealth sleigh.

Carrey’s Grinch seems more adolescent than Dr. Seuss’ bitter old creature, but the movie’s bizarre backstory reveals that he’s actually a lovelorn baby boomer. Someone must have decided that the “heart two sizes too small” diagnosis was not specific enough, so into the past we travel: The 8-year-old Grinch, smitten with classmate Martha May Whovier (Baranski), builds her a Christmas angel from scrap metal and gems. But the other children mock his childhood whiskers, so the night before the school’s gift-giving ritual, he decides to shave. The kids’ laughter at his papered-over cuts humiliates him so badly that he slinks up the mountain forever. The shaving stuff seems to suggest a lesson about not growing up too fast, but the sequence is so glaringly odd I wondered if I was glimpsing some ancient Opie trauma.

Taylor Momsen, charming and understated as Cindy Lou Who, holds her own in her scenes with Carrey. Brave, curious, and compassionate, she’s the film’s Lisa Simpson, but with better hair—a fantastic multichambered blond beehive. Cindy Lou pieces the Grinch’s shaving trauma together by interviewing older Whos and then decides to befriend him, drawn to the Mean One because she alone in Whoville dislikes the frantic shopping spree Christmas has become.

Now, I was all set to get snotty about a $115 million holiday release wringing its animatronic hands over the commercialization of Christmas, but the movie wittily updates and expands the original cartoon’s anti-consumerist message. The Grinch’s childhood love object has grown up into Whoville’s Martha Stewart who wears a marabou-trimmed Santa outfit and decorates her house with a machine gun that sprays Christmas lights. Cindy Lou’s mother (Molly Shannon) competes by dressing her family in holiday tablecloths complete with place settings. Whoville in December is one big blue-light special, full of high-nosed creatures knocking each other over to get to the stores.

After she discovers the roots of the Grinch’s misanthropy, Cindy Lou convinces the town to anoint the Grinch as Whoville Cheermeister. She then travels to the Grinch’s cave to invite him down. He wants to come accept his award at the Whobilation “to see someone else lose,” but he’s reluctant to go into town, so he obsesses over the pros and cons like a schizophrenic with ADD. On the con side is his busy schedule: He flips his appointment book open with a long, green furry finger and reads the day’s schedule of “Self-pity…staring into the abyss…self-loathing…dinner with myself; I just can’t cancel that again.”

With the lightest of touches, this bit gets at the emotional tangle of Christmas, a loneliness often cloaked in disdain for the capitalist orgy. That December spike in the suicide rate isn’t about protesting Hallmark; it’s about buying into it. Adults throw themselves under buses this time of year not because they can’t afford presents, but because everyone else seems to be part of a loving, functional family that doesn’t really need presents because they have each other. It’s to the movie’s credit that the Grinch still seems like a freakish outsider when he’s hand in hand with all the Whos on Christmas morning, belting out the wrong “words” to the “Dah who dorez” song from the cartoon.

The Grinch does decide to go to the Whobilation, after a dazzling picking-an-outfit scene (“It’s not a skirt—it’s a kilt,” Carrey brays after wrapping his tablecloth around his prosthetic belly). And his Christmas agonies continue; this celebration is so awful that retreat to a cave seems a sensible response. The townspeople shove brightly colored cakes and puddings into his mouth, then whirl him around sickeningly in the Chair of Cheer. Cindy Lou argues scripture from the Book of Who with the sanctimonious mayor, and even family takes a hit: When the spinsters who raised him run squealing up to the grown Grinch, he drawls, “You two are still alive?” It’s a little cruel to the old Whos, but the exchange explodes the exhausting fakery beneath so much holiday merrymaking.

The Grinch touches on enough of the adult complexities of this freighted season to keep parents diverted while the children laugh at the broad stuff. There’s only one blatantly crass gag: While stealing the Whos’ presents, the Grinch tricks the sleeping mayor into kissing Max’s anus. Even the kids in attendance didn’t laugh much. That the bit felt so jarring underscored how surprisingly not-vulgar this Grinch is. The worst miscalculation is the heart-growing scene. One of the best visuals in the original is the Grinch’s new heart busting the frame of an X-ray screen; here he moans and rolls on the floor, clutching his thumping chest as if he were having an infarction. It went on way too long, and I heard a few panicky voices ask, “Mommy, what’s happening to him?”

In the 43 years since Seuss’ book and the 34 since the Seuss-Chuck Jones cartoon, marketing has metastasized into something more cunning and sophisticated than the Grinch could have imagined. Although purists may long for the old thatched-hut Whoville and its sweetly unmaterialistic denizens, Howard’s loud, garish theme park seems more appropriate to Christmas 2000. In the old days, a town that had spent days buying and setting up stuff didn’t care when it was stolen. The new Grinch acknowledges that thing-lust is more insidious than that, tackling consumerism in all its guises, even as Grinch ties, boxer shorts, inflatable action figures, coffee mugs, playing cards, and yo-yos begin their march toward your Christmas tree. CP