The Cable Guy

Dir: Ben Stiller, 1996. Starring: Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann, Jack Black. Comedy.
The Cable Guy

Like a paranoid science-fiction film from the '70s, The Cable Guy pretends to be about the threat of technology and America's addiction to television. In the mid 1990s, was the developing "information super-highway" a potentially scary thing? This was Ben Stiller's directional follow up to Reality Bites, his would-be Gen-X anthem, and they both play almost like period pieces now. The Cable Guy's underlying messages may not be very convincing, but as a showcase for Jim Carrey's insane performance it hits its mark perfectly.

With TV's In Living Color Carrey had become a comedy name, but with the surprise hit, the messy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and its even lazier sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, he became a box office super star. With his rubber face and goofy physical comedy in films like The Mask and later Dumb & Dumber Carrey he was also becoming popular with the kiddies. Though he had played a villain with some great physicality as The Riddler in the otherwise forgettable Batman Forever, it surprised many audience members when he popped up in '96 in such a dark and mean-spirited comedy as The Cable Guy. (His $20 million paycheck at the time also got a lot of flack from those audiences who fret over actors' salaries.)

Carrey’s Cable Guy is an insane stalker; we learn from some Midnight Cowboy style flashbacks that he was raised on too much TV (he takes the name from obvious Nick at Nite characters, Chip Douglas and Larry Tate). After installing the cable of Steven (Matthew Broderick), a sad sack recently dumped by his girlfriend, the Cable Guy pursues his friendship. Carry’s Cable Guy has a bad lisp and he’s a needy nerd, but in a couple of hilarious moments the Cable Guy’s ugly violent side comes out. He goes all medieval on Steven in a fight at a Medieval Times theme restaurant and then gets too aggressive at a pickup basketball game. He tries to give Steven advice on his breakup, quoting Jerry Springer’s "Final Thoughts." But when Steven hooks up with an attractive woman after the Cable Guy’s hosted karaoke party and finds out she was a paid hooker, it’s the final straw. He breaks off their friendship and that is when the Cable Guy, and the film, gets rather nasty. It’s dark, but maybe too "zany" to be called a "black comedy," but Carrey’s amazing performance is almost spoofing a melodramatic "black comedy" performance.

The karaoke party is the film's highlight. Jim Carrey’s performance of Jefferson Airplane’s "Somebody To Love" is one of Carrey’s best on screen moments. When Steven’s ex-girlfriend, Robin, is on a date with a pompous ass (a wonderfully smug Owen Wilson) the Cable Guy gives him a delirious beating in the men’s room. It’s Carrey physically at his best, dancing around and doing impromptu be-bop jazz. Robin is played by Leslie Mann, wife of the film’s producer, Judd Apatow, the usual source of her casting. Apatow was also a producer of Stiller’s sketch comedy show, The Ben Stiller Show, and alums from that show all pop in for cameos: Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Odenkirk (as well as Odenkirks’s Mr. Show castmates, David Cross and Jack Black, who has a substantial role as Steven’s best pal).

Though the film loses some edge in the second half as the Cable Guy worms his way into Robin and Steven’s family life and the almost apocalyptic ending is rather lame (without TV people instantly discover the magic of reading), it’s still Ben Stiller’s most interesting outing as a feature film director. The Cable Guy may not hit all its intended notes, but the ambition is admirable. Stiller would go on to direct the sketchy hit-or-miss comedies Zoolander and Tropic Thunder (as well as the great little cult TV pilot, Heat Vision And Jack, starring Jack Black). At one time there was talk of Stiller directing a film version of Budd Schulberg’s anti-Hollywood (and some critics have said anti-Jewish) 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Now Stiller taking on Sammy Glick would really be ambitious.

After The Cable Guy, which was both financially and critically deemed unsuccessful by most, Carrey continued with comedies (Liar, Liar etc.), but he would also veer off in a more dramatic direction. He did an amazing Andy Kaufman impression in Milo Foreman’s enjoyable biopic, Man On The Moon. And he would receive a lot of good will for his warm performances in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and The Truman Show, but like Robin Williams before him, it often seems that "drama" for Carrey means talking slower and softer. The Cable Guy is Carrey at his most dangerous. Hopefully one day Carrey will find another role in a non-kiddie film that can use his physical skills, show his "dramatic" side, and also let him again use the darker places in his own personality. When Carrey goes dark, as he gets to do in The Cable Guy, it’s an exciting thing to watch.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 19, 2010 5:57pm
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