It's hard to tell if Jim Carrey is looking to rebuild a relationship with his old audience, or forge a bond with a new one in Mr. Popper's Penguins.
However, it is easy to tell that he hasn't done either.
In 1994, Carrey became one of the kings of comedy thanks to the first Ace Ventura movie, which was quickly followed by The Mask. Neither was great, but they endeared audiences to the rubber-faced comic, a one-two punch that led to a TKO with Dumb and Dumber just a few months later.
Although he's been successful at the box office since that first big year, Carrey's comedic work since has only been so-so. Some of his flirtations with more serious film have been better, especially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but unless you count Liar Liar or Bruce Almighty as great comedies (profitable though they were), Dumb and Dumber was as good as it ever got for him.
Taking a page out of Eddie Murphy's book, Carrey has sidled up to a family comedy. After all, if his original audience was in college when Ace Ventura broke through, many in that crowd have kids now. But like Murphy's PG-rated efforts, Mr. Popper's Penguins offers—at best—a handcuffed Jim Carrey. There are tiny bits and pieces of his comedic style, but nothing funny, nothing that can be truly memorable years from now, and nothing that makes up for the rest of the lackluster film.
In fact, there's nothing here that indicates the movie even needs Jim Carrey. Or that audiences need the movie itself.
Carrey plays Tom Popper, a cutthroat real estate tycoon in New York City who walled off his heart when his globetrotting father stopped coming home. Popper is divorced, and although he has two kids, he's obviously more married to and interested in his latest acquisitions.
When the movie opens, he's brokering a deal to buy the famous Flatiron Building, and his next mission is Tavern on the Green, the only privately held property in Central Park. Why, if he can grab that, he can rule, like, an acre of Central Park. (As it happens, the Tavern declared bankruptcy in 2009 and closed at the end of that year; perhaps that bankruptcy should have been a more powerful omen for the filmmakers.)
Unexpectedly, as it would be for nearly anyone, Popper's life is upended by a half-dozen penguins, a final gift bequeathed by his father. Six flightless birds on the loose in one swanky Manhattan apartment ... that can only mean hijinks! That's the intention, perhaps, but being exceedingly generous, it's a mild case of medium-jinks. The penguins aren't all that destructive, though they certainly do enjoy Popper transforming his apartment into a kind of Antarctic refuge, and they are more or less docile if Charlie Chaplin is on TV.
Yes, it might be purposely ironic (if that's possible) that creatures living in subzero temperatures thaw Popper's heart, as he begins to realize there's more to life than closing deals. He becomes something like a father to his kids again, and his ex-wife doesn't find it at all bizarre that a single man in his 40s has turned his apartment into an igloo so he can play with penguins. So that's nice.
Minus the birds, Mr. Popper's Penguins bears almost no resemblance to the book of the same name, now 73 years old. In that, Popper was a pauper. He painted houses instead of gobbling up much larger buildings. The updated setting will almost certainly mean nothing to children, unless they live in New York. Even then, would they know or care about Tavern on the Damn Green? It's a colossal failure for the film, because the original premise is simpler to present visually and emotionally. It is not hard to see why children have connected with the story for most of a century. This version is crap.
On that subject, there is quite literally a fair amount of crap in this movie. Six penguins plus a theater full of kids and a board room full of studio suits who can accurately compute the lowest common denominator equals the exploration of many things scatological. That's also not in the book. But it doesn't need to be in the movie, either, unless the film wants to exist without attempting any jokes at all. Maybe it would have been better off if it had gone down that road.
How anyone could take a story this fail-safe—a story overflowing with some of the world's most beloved creatures—and turn it into this version of Mr. Popper's Penguins is a question people will be asking for a long time. If they don't just ignore the movie instead.