The Cable Guy

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Ben Stiller

Written by Lou Holtz Jr.

With Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, George Segal, Diane Baker, Jack Black, and Charles Napier.

By Patrick Z. McGavin

When it comes to art and commerce, Hollywood is ruled by a perverse though immutable logic. Good movies are movies that make money; bad movies lose money. It’s a formula that doesn’t allow for ambiguity, for the fact that superior films might fail commercially. When Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger was released in 1990, some members of the press rightly faulted the distributor for its inability to create an effective marketing campaign. But the Hollywood establishment blamed Burnett as the author of his own marginalization, as if his brand of filmmaking were ineluctably inferior.

Jim Carrey has continually validated this bottom-line equation. The artistically negligible films he’s made have grossed vast sums. Reaping the benefits of that success, Carrey has consolidated his power and control, firing directors on projects and installing his friends in their place. Almost without exception his films have been critically despised and commercially envied. And his box-office credentials and corresponding clout reached their apotheosis with The Cable Guy, for which he earned an astounding $20 million.

Since he’s impervious to criticism, Carrey could wield his power destructively–placate his undemanding audience and take the money and run. But in a wholly unanticipated turn of events, Carrey has defied the Hollywood orthodoxy and actually used his power in a fascinating way, boldly attempting to enlarge his skills and extend his persona. In the process, he’s been excoriated by the very Hollywood power structure that made these risks possible.

Since the film’s opening–it’s the sixth consecutive Carrey film to open number-one at the box office, grossing just under $20 million in three days–the media have been rife with anti-Carrey ranting. A Los Angeles Times story quoted several anonymous executives at other studios who hoped the film would fail, blaming Columbia exec Mark Canton for what he paid out to Carrey, thereby artificially inflating the salaries of other stars. More damaging are the vulturelike attacks on Carrey’s ambitious departure–as usual, arguing that it’s an artistic failure because it’s apparently going go be a commercial failure. The opening three-day numbers were harbingers of doom, with weak per-screen averages and bad word of mouth, according to the Times. One expert, noting that the film opened weaker than the previous four Carrey films, questioned whether The Cable Guy would even break $60 million, the amount needed to offset production and marketing costs.

A compelling work loaded with strong ideas, though imperfectly staged and executed, the film is invaluable as Carrey’s self-portrait and suggests a complexity undetected in his previous vehicles. Perhaps the best way to approach the fairly inchoate Cable Guy is as a bleak and savage cautionary tale about the difficulties attendant on American celebrity. In its most inspired passages, the film is almost Brechtian, a peculiar auto critique that powerfully evokes what Carrey’s life and art would become if he didn’t constantly challenge the constraints of his own image. Studded with images of entrapment and the loss of individuality, the film reconsiders not what Carrey is capable of but where he’s willing to go. It’s an important distinction. For the first time, Carrey’s made a movie that questions the compliant relationship between himself and the easily gratified spectator.

In the film, directed by Ben Stiller, Carrey is the cable guy, a repellent, nasty character who invades the life of a repressed architect, Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick); Steven is recovering from the shock of his girlfriend (Leslie Mann) forcing him out of the apartment they shared following his surprising marriage proposal. In a creative title sequence–the names are blurred and hard to read because of the constant static and snowy images of “free” television–Steven breaks down and orders cable service. Awaiting the arrival of the installer, he calls his best friend, a producer, who advises him to pay off the installer in order to receive free movie channels.

The film is weakest and most predictable as its dark plot is set in motion. Frustrated by his wait for the cable installer, Steven jumps in the shower–and of course that’s when the cable guy shows up, knocking loudly at the door and almost giving up until Steven opens the door, dripping wet and wearing just a bathrobe. Initially rude and sarcastic, the cable guy eventually tells Steven to ease up, he’s just playing around. The setup isn’t original, but it does establish the extreme give-and-take of their relationship. The moment exposes Steven’s vulnerability and Carrey’s insouciance, extreme fluctuations of tone, and almost pathological need to control the situation: when Steven leaves the room, the cable guy switches around the furniture, claiming to improve the reception. “I can be your best friend or worst enemy,” he says.

Timid and awkward, Steven offers the cable guy a small bribe for the premium channels, which the cable guy misconstrues as an invitation to friendship. Carrey is ecstatic; he immediately supplies Steven with his private pager number and sets him up as one of his “preferred customers.” The cable guy invites Steven for a night out, and the lonely and confused architect reluctantly accepts. Carrey takes him to his favorite outpost, a secluded giant satellite dish, where he reveals the sad contours of his life, a childhood racked by loneliness and despair, an absent father, his only emotional outlet the passive and incessant television. But the hackneyed notion of TV as a substitute authority figure is one of the least interesting ideas in the film, and the critique of a television-saturated culture wholly redundant. What’s original is Carrey’s desperate insistence on friendship, the first indication of the character’s disturbing psychology, as the cable guy’s relationship with Steven shifts into an aggressive homoerotic infatuation with recurrent themes of possession and submission.

The film is not devoid of laughs. (“You think guys like us could get a girl like that without paying?” Carrey asks a stunned Steven when he reveals that the woman he set Steven up with is a prostitute.) But this is the first Carrey film to effectively turn on its audience. Rather than implicating his viewers in his humor, allowing them to vicariously experience the gratification and empowerment of his character’s actions, Carrey repels them by enlarging his character’s oddities into psychosis. What’s fascinating is how Stiller and Carrey couch the disturbing narrative within the broad outlines of male camaraderie, evoking the darkness under apparently placid surfaces. Indeed, at least at the beginning, the cable guy’s prodding helps Steven, releasing his built-up anxieties and drawing him out of his melancholia. In one of the film’s most daring scenes, set in a restaurant with a medieval theme, the cable guy incites a jarring fight sequence between the two men center stage, complete with full battle regalia: Steven overcomes his initial wariness and actually outdoes his perverse companion in a joust. This meditation on role-playing and performance is far more psychologically dense and eerie than the film’s recurring pop-culture and film references and its criticism of TV.

More impressive is Carrey’s ability to work through the knotty, tortured complications of his character, providing the necessary gravity and even a hint of plausibility. Carrey’s work is more controlled and fluid than in earlier films, with a noticeable pain and fury. Two scenes–one visual, the other aural–illustrate the point. In the first, Carrey interrupts a pickup basketball game in which Steven is playing. Replacing an injured player, the cable guy insists on warming up before play is resumed, running from one half of the court to the frontcourt in spasms and bursts about as ungraceful and unathletic as one could imagine. Shooting in wide screen, Stiller and his cinematographer Robert Brinkmann beautifully chart the feverish, darting horizontal movement in unbroken shots that heighten the manic energy.

The cable guy’s wish for Steven’s approval is so strong that he takes over the game, despite his limited ability, prematurely ending it with a devastating dunk (using an opponent’s back as a ramp) that shatters the backboard, Darryl Dawkins style. In the second sequence, Steven returns home and is elated to find he has 11 messages on his answering machine, but his excitement soon turns to horror when he learns that the cable guy is responsible for 10 of them. Carrey’s shifting voice patterns are hilarious, and the dizzying moves from hope and recovery to heartbreak point out the depth of his feelings.

Despite all the press about Carrey and this movie, no one has broached the subject of the film’s gay subtext. (Carrey’s feel for the intensely suggestive is as assured as his capacity for outrageous spectacle, as he proved by donning that green sequin-studded Riddler outfit in Batman Forever.) That the subject is alluded to but never fully explored is one of the film’s significant disappointments. One potentially powerful scene–and one often discredited by the critics–shows Carrey sadistically beating the man who’s dating Steven’s old girlfriend. It’s as if Steven’s concerns have become the cable guy’s and their identities have been merged, yet Stiller and writer Lou Holtz Jr. diminish the scene’s suggestive potential by making the victim an obnoxious jerk, a narcissistic pretty boy we’ve just seen abusing the waiters in an upscale restaurant.

It’s too bad that this provocative scene is cheapened, because on the whole The Cable Guy is about as subversive a mainstream comedy as you’ll find: no other star of Carrey’s magnitude would experiment with such an off-putting character, a weak and unstable person who constantly surrenders to his base impulses and needs. And if you consider the film’s autobiographical side and think of Carrey’s representative not as the obnoxious cable installer but as his passive besieged friend Steven, you have to feel some compassion for the entrapment of stars. One of the most frightening stories I’ve read about Carrey reported that his talent agency recently put him under 24-hour surveillance to prevent any rival agencies from recruiting him. And during the making of the film, Carrey underwent a very public breakup with actress Lauren Holly.

The Cable Guy includes some very funny vignettes about the dominance of junk-mall culture in American life. (Stiller, in a hilarious cameo, plays a former child star on trial for the death of his identical twin brother, the costar of his one-time hit sitcom.) But the film is most interesting in tacitly acknowledging Carrey’s unease with his overnight stardom, in confronting the potentially crippling effects of eroded freedom and independence. But in doing so, Carrey has definitely confronted the establishment. Writing in the New York Times, critic Janet Maslin–who almost always goes out of her way to find at least some merit in the worst big-budget Hollywood films–condemned The Cable Guy, calling it “the true disaster movie of the summer” and “a grim, sour comedy” whose “unifying attitudes are misanthropy and contempt.” In the Sun-Times, Roger Ebert complained that any “film that makes us dislike [Carrey] is a strategic mistake.” But in fact the part liberates the actor from the emotionally uninvolving, repetitive rituals of his less threatening work in the Ace Ventura films.

The son of consummate performers Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, director Ben Stiller honors his two leads’ distinctive, radically different approaches, allowing Carrey’s stylized nut case to coexist with Broderick’s classic straight man. One of the modest pleasures of Stiller’s Reality Bites was his restrained directing style: his debut didn’t add unnecessary stylistic energy to the material. With this film, Stiller opens up a little. Using the dank interiors of Steven’s apartment, his claustrophobic office, and the cable guy’s all-purpose van–a mobile home and work station–Stiller repeatedly emphasizes confinement and stasis, and he and Brinkmann brilliantly use the ‘Scope frame not to enlarge space but to restrict it.

Unfortunately, Stiller can’t sustain that unsettling tone even over the film’s brief 93 minutes. The third-act scenes (Steven getting busted for accepting the cable guy’s stolen merchandise and being outraged at playing “porno password” with his parents, and the final showdown between Steven and the cable guy) resolve the plot difficulties but don’t fully explore the film’s psychological implications. One hopes that for the sake of his own talent Carrey continues this vein of self-criticism instead of settling for the cruder, less interesting material his fans are demanding. And viewer dissatisfaction is apparently significant: the film suffered significant drop-offs during its second week.

The Cable Guy may not satisfy the executives and investors, but it suggests a career far more substantial and risky than anyone would previously have imagined for Jim Carrey. He’s made a good film that probably won’t make a profit. That may be the price he has to pay for experimentation, but the movies–and the viewers–will be far better off for it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo.