In Jim We Trust

updated 06/09/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/2003 01:00AM

A funny thing happened to Jim Carrey on the way to Bruce Almighty's L.A. premiere May 14. Mingling and posing for pictures with screaming fans, the actor actually started to enjoy himself. Just a few years ago "it was like pulling teeth" to draw Carrey out of his shell at such glitzy events, says pal Bob Zmuda. "I've never seen him like this before. He was like a political candidate that night. I think for the first time he's really feeling comfortable being a star."

If Carrey felt good then—"I love the crowd because I'm a megalomaniac," he joked to PEOPLE—he must be positively giddy now. His comedy Bruce Almighty, about a Buffalo TV reporter who curses God and is temporarily given heavenly powers, pocketed a hefty $85.7 million over its opening weekend, cementing his return to the top of the box office after his dramatic turn in The Majestic flopped in 2001. "I'm having fun," Carrey, 41, told Howard Stern recently. "I've always taken it so seriously, and this is the first time in my life I'm kind of needless in the universe."

His biggest need lately has been a smaller wardrobe: Before starting filming on Bruce, Carrey lost 25 lbs. with dieting and daily workouts. "I've never seen him look and psychologically sound healthier," says Zmuda, an executive producer of Carrey's 1999 drama Man on the Moon. Bruce costar Lisa Ann Walter recalls teasing Carrey about how good he looked in his pants. "He turned beet red," she says, "because I commented about his butt. He's definitely-conservative in that Canadian way."

During downtime, the Toronto native still ducks the spotlight. Instead of hitting the town in L.A., Carrey prefers to entertain friends at the cushy home theater in his Brentwood mansion (he also owns a three-bedroom pad in Malibu). When he wants to go out, "he has a motorcycle and a helmet with a tinted shield on it," says Zmuda, "so nobody knows it's him."

But Carrey couldn't keep his private life out of the headlines this spring, when news broke that his first wife, Melissa, 42, had filed papers in January requesting an increase in his monthly $10,000 child-support payments to their daughter Jane, 15. Melissa, who was divorced from Carrey in 1995, claimed Jane needed to enjoy "the prestigious lifestyle" to which she was accustomed with her father, who made a reported $25 million for Bruce. They hammered out an undisclosed agreement just before an April court hearing. Carrey enjoys a close relationship with his daughter, lately bonding over jazz music. "It's ridiculous," says Carrey. "She knows more about it than I do." Adds filmmaker pal Lynne Margulies: "He'll rent bowling alleys and close them down just so he can play with her."

Any other women in his life? After his divorce from actress Lauren Holly in 1998 and the end of his engagement to Renée Zellweger in 2000, Carrey seems content to play the field. "I'm enjoying single life," he told Stern. He dated "a couple of times" while filming the upcoming drama Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in New York City, and last year reportedly squired Russian ballerina Anastasiya Volochkova. "I think he'll settle eventually," says Margulies. "He's said he'd like to." As Carrey puts it, "As soon as you say, 'Never again,' she walks through the door."

Until then his ever-bigger career can keep him busy. After working as a janitor as a teen, Carrey became a hit on the comedy circuit, finally breaking through on TV's In Living Color. In 1994 Ace Ventura: Pet Detective launched him to stardom. "He's a perfectionist," says Ace and Bruce director Tom Shadyac. "He'll keep twisting words around, trying out a new face or gesture, until he thinks it is as funny as it can be."

These days, playing God has put Carrey in a reflective mood. "Everything in my life has happened for a reason, and a good reason," he says. "When I'm on the beam, the blessings just come one right after another. It's unbelievable when I'm in the right place." Almighty, then!

Jason Lynch
Rachel Biermann, Carrie Bell and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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