It's usually safe to assume that a comic is speaking metaphorically when he talks about "murdering the audience." With Jim Carrey, however, you never can be completely sure.
Something dark and savage lurks just below the surface of his frenetic shenanigans. Whether he's yodeling through his backside in Ace Ventura, or literally bouncing off walls in The Mask, or turning himself into a living-and-breathing sight gag as Fire Marshal Bill on TV's In Living Color, Carrey gives you the impression that, hey, you damn well better laugh. Because if you don't laugh -- a lot -- he'll know about it. Rarely has any comic actor been so up-front in expressing his willingness to kill to be the life of the party. Compared to Carrey, Steve Martin at his most unabashedly snide seems warm and cuddly. And Robin Williams at his most aggressively freewheeling seems to have at least a nodding acquaintance with shame.
Given all that, it was only a matter of time before Carrey tried something like The Cable Guy, a movie where he doesn't even pretend to be a lovable little guy at heart. Trouble is, Carrey doesn't try hard enough, and the movie itself is a misshapen mess. Chalk it up to a colossal failure of nerve, or the most misguided miscalculation this side of Hudson Hawk. Whatever the reason, something that had the potential to be audacious and offbeat has been watered down, second-guessed and generally bollixed, all in the vain hope of making it audience-friendly. Or at least audience-unthreatening. The result is a movie that is neither fish nor fowl, neither black comedy nor goofy farce. It's almost as though, midway through a performance of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, a theatrical troupe suddenly decided to do The Odd Couple instead.
Working from a screenplay credited to Lou Holtz Jr., director Ben Stiller (Reality Bites) frantically juggles suspense-movie cliches and pop-culture references in a way that suggests a channel-surfing, Ritalin-deprived Roman Polanski. Chip Douglas, a manic cable-TV installer played by Carrey, is a motor-mouth wisenheimer who at first seems only slightly more abrasive than Ace Ventura. Before long, however, Chip reveals his true nature as something far less harmless: the kind of friend you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.
Chip shows up at the apartment of yuppie Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) and sticks around to take advantage of the poor guy's politeness. By turns boisterously overbearing and pathetically fawning, Chip campaigns to win over Steven as his new best friend. He rigs the cable box so Steven will receive movie channels for free, then surrounds the TV set with a state-of-the-art sound system. (It comes complete with a karaoke machine, a prop that Carrey puts to great use during a hilariously creepy party sequence.) He even tries to help Steven recover from a bad case of heartbreak by offering some surprisingly effective advice. Does Steven really want to curry favor with his ex-girlfriend? Well, then, he should invite her over to watch Sleepless in Seattle. On cable TV, naturally.
Unfortunately, Chip doesn't know -- or, worse, doesn't care -- when he's going too far. It's more than a little presumptuous when he arranges for Steven's seduction by a beautiful prostitute. And it's perilously close to psychotic when Chip violently attacks the would-be seducer of Steven's lady love. But when Steven demands that Chip get out of his life, and Chip responds by having Steven arrested for receiving stolen property -- remember the sound system? -- The Cable Guy begins to resemble a gender-bent version of such spurned-stalker melodramas as Fatal Attraction and Play Misty for Me (which pops up briefly on a TV screen). So much so, in fact, that you can't help wondering whether the obsessed Chip is meant as a parody of a particularly unpleasant movie stereotype: the homicidally inclined repressed homosexual.
As it turns out, however, The Cable Guy is too gutless to deal with its own homoerotic undercurrents, and too sloppy to sustain any kind of inner logic in its plotting. Chip is supposed to be a lonely and friendless wretch who can interpret everything he sees and hears only in terms of what he has seen and heard on television. (In a jarringly melodramatic flashback, we see that, during his childhood, Chip spent countless hours in front of the TV while his neglectful mother made merry at happy hour.) But whenever it is necessary to advance the plot, Chip suddenly has lots of friends, many of whom appear to suffer from a similar lack of social graces. And it does seem a bit hypocritical for Stiller to suggest that Chip is so emotionally and intellectually impoverished because of his TV obsession. After all, Stiller crams Cable Guy with dozens of in-jokey, TV-savvy references, with special emphasis on a running gag about a high-profile murder trial. Stiller himself plays both the accused killer and his twin bother, the murder victim, in newscast snippets. Big laugh: Eric Roberts makes a cameo appearance as Eric Roberts, star of the TV movie "inspired" by the trial.
Matthew Broderick does as well as anyone could in the thankless role of straight man to Carrey's whirling dervish. Broderick gets a few giggles with a reaction shot here and there, but for the most part, he's dead serious about acting angry or scared or both. Thanks in large part to the sincerity of his performance, some of the stalking scenes are more unsettling than they have any right to be. In fact, all it would take is a simple substitution of background music for one or two scenes to come across as straight melodrama. Sometimes, John Ottman's determinedly "wacky" score is the only reminder that this is a comedy, and we're supposed to be laughing.
The Cable Guy leaves you wishing that Stiller, Carrey and everyone else involved had simply gone a few steps further, and allowed Chip to evolve into something seriously and dangerously twisted. One thing seems certain: Carrey is ready and able, though perhaps not yet willing, to take his hyperactive antics to their logical extreme, and to unleash the beast that snarls beneath his slapstick. It's quite possible that someday The Cable Guy will be seen as a transitional film for Carrey, much as Punchline was for Tom Hanks and Pennies from Heaven was for Steve Martin. That is, it will be remembered as the film that made people think, "Oh. Look at that. He is capable of other things. More interesting things. Darker things. Let's see more."
The Cable Guy.
Directed by Ben Stiller. With Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.