Jim Carrey is Chip Douglas, cable intaller. Raised on television sitcoms, he want life to look just like My Three Sons. And when he meets single guy Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick), he sees his chance for some serious male bonding. But Chip’s idea of friendship-which includes physical assalt, a game of ‘Porno Password’ and a medieval joust-may be hazardous to Steven’s health. In Chip’s own immortal words, “I can be your best friend…or your worst enemy.”
The Cable Guy 7.75
eyelights: Jim Carrey’s performance. its black humour. Jack Black. its many cameos.
eyesores: its downbeat third act.
“Oh by the way, you might wanna put on a bathing suit ’cause you’ll be channel surfing in no time!”
By 1996, Jim Carrey had been on a whirlwind take-over of Hollywood, having blasted to the top of the box office with five movies (‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective‘, ‘The Mask‘, ‘Dumb and Dumber‘, ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls’) over the course of merely two years.
Then came ‘The Cable Guy’.
A dark comedy directed by Ben Stiller, it was Carrey’s first picture to net him the then-unprecedented paycheque of 20 million dollars. In light of his recent successes and his sizeable take of the production’s budget, expectations were considerably high. Perhaps altogether too high: he stumbled.
Or, rather, ‘The Cable Guy’ did. The picture drew 60 million at the North American box office and an additional 40 million overseas. It absolutely made a profit, but it was nonetheless perceived as a failure because his previous films had all blown the roof right off. This was a hit. A mere hit.
The problem was compounded by the fact that the picture delved into darker territory, making light of stalking whereas Carrey’s previous turns were ostensibly exercises in manic zaniness. Even though he once again played a caricature (a sort of sociopathic Lloyd), he couldn’t engage audiences easily this time.
He was, for all intents and purposes, the antagonist.
This left Matthew Broderick to pick up the slack for him, to be our connector, being our protagonist. However, he was recipient of all of Carrey’s focus and, although Broderick can easily make his characters instantly likeable, he seemed rather timid and weak in comparison to this force of nature.
It leaves audiences unsure of who to root for. Should they root for the good guy, who feels a bit soft? Or should they root for the bad guy, who is vibrancy and funny – disturbingly so? It’s an uncomfortable situation for audiences and this no doubt exacerbated the disquiet already surrounding the theme.
‘The Cable Guy’ tells the story of Steven (Broderick), a recently-separated man, who makes an awkward connection with his cable installer (Carrey) while he’s moving into his new apartment. The problem is that this new “friend” is extremely needy and has little sense of boundary, beginning to crowd him.
When he tries to get things under control, however, Chip the cable guy turns on him, becoming moody and then making threats. Now Steven not only can’t seem to get rid of him, his whole life is being tossed about, putting the remains of his former relationship at risk and endangering the lives of his loved ones.
Sounds like a ball of laughs, right?
Actually, it features one of Carrey’s finest performances and some of his funniest shticks. But people just couldn’t swallow it; it was too much. Ironically, not even two years later, the Farellys would mine box office gold with their own stalker comedy: ‘There’s Something About Mary‘ (starring Stiller).
What makes ‘The Cable Guy’ interesting, though, is that it also wraps itself in layers of social commentary, in particular about the influence of the media (especially television) on our lives. For instance, there is the recurring thread of the murder trial of a former child star (in a satirical cameo by Stiller).
Then there’s that Carrey’s character, Chip, was raised by television. He’s been so wholly influenced by it that he only relates to life through these televisual experiences. At the time of the picture’s release, we were seeing the first generation of adults who had been raised by television. It wasn’t pretty.
The picture naturally also makes a number of pop cultural references along the way, one of the most notable being our two leads dueling it out in the Medieval Times arena; the scene spoofs the pon farr ritual of ‘Star Trek’ episode “Amok Time”, with Carrey rehashing the dialogues in his inimitable way.
(Clearly, Carrey must be a ‘Star Trek’ fan because he also did those hilarious impressions of Kirk, Scotty and McCoy in ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’. Similarly, he must also have been a fan of ‘Silence of the Lambs’, as he made references to it here and also in ‘Dumb and Dumber’.)
Another unforgettable slice of pop cultural moment is when Chip organizes a karaoke party at his good buddy’s apartment and proceeds to perform “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane. It’s an astonishing performance by Carrey (complete with vibrating vocal chords and Woodstock announcements!).
For me, this may have been the scene that killed karaoke, being possibly my first exposure to the unfathomably popular pastime: the party that Chip put together is so lame, with atrocious singing and pathetic dancing by a bunch of losers. I can’t help but think of karaoke as something pathetic, to be avoided at all costs.
But it is funny in this context.
What’s less funny is the third act, which finds Steven “dumping” Chip, after which the latter decides to get back at him. It’s pretty dark and not especially risible. Further to that, it’s not at all logical because it’s clear that Steven would have had alibis up the wazoo to protect himself from all the allegations.
Adding to the third act’s dark pall is an inherent sadness when we understand the depth of Chip’s sense of isolation. Once played for laughs (“Pick up pick up pick up!”) it was now more akin to a punch in the gut – especially if one feels socially awkward (as I do: I’m also the guy people don’t know WTF to do with).
But, ultimately, ‘The Cable Guy’ has enough laughs and enough to say to make up for that downturn; it remains entertaining throughout, even as the lights dim slightly. It’s unfortunate that people couldn’t appreciate the picture in the same way that they had ‘The War of the Roses‘, as it certainly falls in the same range.
It’s also Jim Carrey’s most under-rated and under-appreciated motion picture. It’s not a dud, as some are likely to believe; it just runs counter to people’s expectations of him. Still, it would at least prepare us for more challenging and nuanced performances later on, such as in ‘Man on the Moon’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine‘.
That’s when Carrey really showed us what he was capable of. Too bad most people tuned out.
“This concludes our broadcast day. Click.”
Date of viewing: June 3, 2015