One of my favorite things about recalling my movie-watching past is considering the ways I viewed certain films through younger eyes. To see these movies again, today, is often a wildly different experience. Back then, there were countless passages I didn’t get, and, surely, dialogue I couldn’t grasp. A childhood story I’ve recounted ad nauseam involves Batman Returns, and my recitation of the word “bastard” at a friend’s house during playtime. I was eight, and I was scolded by the friend’s mom, but all I knew was that’s what Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman said when she landed in a truck full of kitty litter. We all have stories like this, of course. But I recently discovered that, in my personal viewing history, perhaps no movie has played more differently for my current and former selves than Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
Co-written by lead star Jim Carrey, this 1994 football-themed farce made the rubbery comedian a household name, and was quickly followed, within two years, by the onslaught of The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever, and the Ace Ventura sequel, When Nature Calls. I’m not sure if I ever loved Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but I clearly absorbed enough of it to remember its hallmarks well: lines like, “Alrighty then”; Ace’s signature, tidal-wave up-do; and gags like Ace literally talking out of his ass. What I didn’t realize is that this movie is shockingly offensive, and not in the tongue-in-cheek, envelope-pushing way most modern comedies are. It’s set during the lead-up to a Super Bowl, and while I’m sure plenty of football films have delivered their share of queer slurs, I don’t think any are as homophobic—or, in large part, transphobic—as this one.
But even before Ace Ventura takes jaw-dropping swipes at the queer community (we’ll get to that), it’s already cluelessly steeped in poor taste. Ace, for those who don’t know, is a Miami-based sleuth who specializes in tracking down animals. He’s eccentric to a fault, and often animalistic himself, nibbling sunflower seeds and spitting away the shells like a bird, and employing an arsenal of creature sounds that give Carrey a vocal workout. His animal love is so great that even the killing of a cockroach sets him off, and yet, he’s hired by the Miami Dolphins’ publicist, Melissa Robinson (Courteney Cox), to track down Snowflake, the team’s kidnapped dolphin mascot, who was already living its life in a tank barely larger than a suburban swimming pool. That Ace never flinches at the fact that Snowflake’s everyday captivity was animal cruelty in itself is the first sign of this movie’s blind, archaic morals (indeed, this particular point feels all the worse in the wake of an eye-opener like Blackfish). Retrieving the dolphin would be better than seeing it murdered by its captor(s), but Ace’s motivation, aside from the pay, is to return Snowflake in time for a halftime performance, where it can do tricks on command and ease player superstitions by serving as their good-luck charm.
As Ace begins to crack the case (not to mention bed an inexplicably smitten Melissa), he starts sniffing out a former Dolphin kicker named Ray Finkle, who in 1984 flubbed a 26-yard field goal in the closing minutes of the Super Bowl, and blamed the whole thing on Dan Marino, who plays himself in the film, and who allegedly failed to hold the ball for Finkle with the “laces out.” The shame of the loss drove Finkle mad, and his story leads Ace down a path that makes a folly of mental illness. At Finkle’s backwoods childhood home, where his (admittedly funny) parents (Bill Zucker and Alice Drummond) declare that “Dan Marino should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell,” Ace is shown the ex-player’s old bedroom, which is loaded with nothing but defaced, mutilated Marino merchandise, like jerseys stabbed with machetes. From there, Ace heads off, with Melissa in tow, to the Tampa mental hospital from which Finkle escaped years ago. To allow Melissa to distract the facility’s head doctor (David Margulies), and clear the way for a little on-site snooping, Ace poses as a mental patient, which involves donning a pink tutu, adopting a pseudo-Downs syndrome inflection, and pretending to live inside his own perpetual fantasy football league. While extras portraying actual mental patients wander in the background, and the doctor running this place looks on, Ace takes a pause in a spot that might hold Finkle clues. He halts at a drinking fountain, splashes water on himself, then kneels and slams his face into a padded bench. “He’ll be fine there by himself for the next 20 minutes,” Melissa assures the doc.
Really, though, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’s insensitivity toward animals and the mentally ill is peanuts compared to its contempt for LGBT people. After hunting down all potential suspects rocking the 1984 AFC Championship ring (one of whom Ace inspects while standing beside him at a urinal, and who prances after Ace with arms aflutter expecting a hookup), the “pet dick,” as he’s often called, realizes Finkle’s been in his midst all along. Turns out Finkle is now Lois Einhorn (Sean Young), the local, libidinous police lieutenant who derides Ace when she’s not sticking her tongue down his and everyone else’s throats. At the time of this movie’s release, Ace’s revelation was played entirely for laughs, but seen today, it’s basically horrifying. “Finkle is Einhorn!” Ace declares to himself. “Einhorn is a man!” With that, Ace, remembering that Einhorn pinned him on her desk and gave him sloppy kisses, goes into a violent burst of queer panic, purging in the toilet, loading his mouth with toothpaste, taking a plunger to his face, purging some more, burning his clothes, and finally crying naked in the shower, all to the tune of Boy George’s “The Crying Game.” Spying the pre-op trans woman the next day, Ace, still loading his mouth with chewing gum as a disinfectant, notes that “the gun” that was “digging into [his] hip” during the pair’s make-out session was in fact a penis, and he shudders madly at the thought.
There’s a tiny part of me that wants to at least acknowledge the unbound novelty of this movie’s big twist, but where things ultimately go leaves no room for anything close to kudos. The climax of the film features Einhorn and some hired thugs holding Marino and Snowflake hostage, and Ace crashing the party with his new, illicit knowledge. In the wake of Ace and Einhorn’s physical brawl, which draws all of Miami’s finest (and the whole film’s cast) to the scene, Ace proceeds to act out a torturous bit of trans-shaming. Aiming to prove that Einhorn is in disguise, he tries to tug off a possible wig. No dice. He then rips open her blouse, where, indeed, he finds breasts. Finally, he yanks off her skirt, and the lack of a package in her panties leaves him speechless. Spent and mortified, Einhorn stands there on display, until, thanks to a tip-off from Marino, Ace grabs his culprit and spins her around, revealing the vivid bulge of a dick and balls that Einhorn had tucked back. Just then, “The Crying Game” picks back up on the soundtrack, and all the males on site begin spitting and cleaning out their mouths, as they too have all locked lips with a woman packing a cock. There is no redemption for Einhorn. She’s knocked into the water and left humiliated all over again—a pathetic loser who deserves to suffer not just for kidnapping, but for the gross crimes of mental instability, sexual deviance, and anatomical otherness.
One might argue that there’s simply a villainous madman at the core of all this, and the film certainly contends that everything, including the sex-change processes, was part of Finkle’s elaborate plan to exact revenge on Marino. But the gravity of what such a plot disregards is tremendous, and the way all of it is depicted on screen is, in retrospect especially, criminal. I haven’t a doubt in my head that, while I surely enjoyed Carrey and his antics in this movie, the message it sends contributed to my thinking that being queer is a fate worse than death. The drastic lengths to which Ace Ventura: Pet Detective goes to assert the awfulness of men kissing men and men becoming women is militant. Although there is an upswing, and a comfort. Watching this film now, it’s abundantly clear that it couldn’t possibly be made today, at least not outside the taboo-driven satire of Johnny Knoxville and the like. Ultimately, the film evokes a good feeling of pop-culture progress, which, I guess, when looking down at it through utterly pitiful eyes, is a little funny.