Oddball French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of he Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind) reunites with his unpredictable Eternal Sunshine star Jim Carrey for what turns out to be a surprisingly restrained outing in Showtime’s single-camera comedy-drama “Kidding.”
Carrey headlines as Jeff Piccirillo, a.k.a. “Jeff Pickles,” the star of the long-running public television kids’ program “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time.” Over the last 30 years, Mr. Pickles has become a national institution, gently advising and educating kids while building a multimillion-dollar marketing empire. When we meet Mr. Pickles, however, things don’t seem so happy for the beloved figure. A year ago one of Mr. Pickles’ twin sons was killed in a tragic traffic accident. In the wake of the loss, the Piccirillo family has imploded. Jeff is now living in a run-down apartment, complete with passed-out junkies on the front step. He’s estranged from his wife (Judy Greer, currently playing everyone’s wife on every TV show). His surviving son (Cole Allen) is angry, rebellious and prone to pay cable-friendly cursing. Smiling and kindly as ever on the surface, our guy Jeff is quietly teetering on the edge of a major breakdown.
Jim Carrey, all but absent from the acting game recently, would seem like the perfect guy to play a kids’ show host. But using Mr. Rogers as the more-than-obvious template proves to be something of a mismatch. Carrey’s manic energy is kept deep under wraps for this soft-spoken, quietly suffering character. He comes across as less “Mr. Rogers” and more “overly medicated Ned Flanders.” Though famously mild mannered, Fred Rogers was never afraid to talk about difficult feelings. (He was doing shows that directly addressed the topic of death back in the ’60s.) Having Carrey’s character hide under an antiquated mask of polite words and good cheer when everyone around him knows about the death of his child feels … disconnected from modern reality.
Aside from Gondry’s name on the opening credits as director and executive producer, you’d never know the surrealist auteur was involved. “Kidding” is mostly straightforward and quirk-free. This follows the lead of the show’s writing, which falls to creator Dave Holstein (a staff writer on “Weeds”). The show clearly wants to be funny-sad. It nails the sad part all right, but doesn’t try very hard for the funny. The pilot’s best line is when Jeff’s son accuses him of “dressing like Rosa Parks’ bus driver.” It’s a spot-on burn, but what actual preteen would make that cultural reference?
Despite insisting that benign TV personality Mr. Pickles and wounded father/husband Jeff Piccirillo are two different people, the biggest problem with “Kidding” is that it can’t seem to follow through on that idea. Carrey’s muted performance and the more-