TV Jeebies

Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey may be the best TV comics in the movies. The sharpest work to date of that painfully promising and unrealized talent Stiller has been in his marvelous TV sketches, and that is the background of the comedy superstar Carrey, too. Both may feel that they have moved beyond that phase of their careers, and yet the strongest and wittiest sections of their new collaboration, The Cable Guy, have the self-contained quality of TV sketches.

A restaurant bit featuring Stiller's TV pals Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick in good, small roles could stand by itself, as could another on a basketball court, and there's a terrific running gag about a televised celebrity trial, starring Stiller.

Stiller directed this dark--though not quite dark enough--comedy, in which Matthew Broderick plays straight man/victim to Carrey's antics as a psychotic cable installer. The C.G. hooks up Broderick to all the premium channels for free, confers "preferred customer" status on him, and expects to be treated as his new best buddy in return. When this doesn't happen, C.G. sets about systematically dismantling Broderick's life.

The trailers for the film are funny, and they led me to hope that perhaps Stiller and Carrey had given the studio more than the summer blockbuster it had asked for--that they had come up with a creepy, perverse black comedy. That seems to be what they have tried for, and maybe that's what they think they've ended up with. Several very funny episodes in The Cable Guy hint at the picture it could have been, but the film isn't nearly as boldly outrageous as it thinks it is, and it runs out of steam well before it's over.

It's a clever satirical premise that can work on several levels at the same time. It has sexual undercurrents and a touch of class-awareness, but above and beyond that, it's simply about the universal experience of dealing with an acquaintance who has an unrequited desire for your friendship. If it had psychological depth, it could make a first-rate horror comedy, and even if it didn't, it could make a first-rate string of blackout-style comedy sketches. What it couldn't do is both, but that--along with a really regrettable streak of didactic sentiment at the end--is what Stiller and Carrey have tried to make it.

Carrey certainly was a vibrant presence on In Living Color, but, as with his first star vehicle, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, he seemed like a sort of talented boor, funny at times but too pushy to be really good company. In each succeeding film, he's come off with more panache and variety.

The imposing, overbearing intensity of Carrey's style has an undeniable potential to seem sinister. This has been put to use already, effectively, in Joel Schumacher's otherwise-wearisome Batman Forever, in which Carrey made a splendidly manic Riddler, cracking up at punch lines only he could hear. This dangerously nutty aspect of Carrey is tapped again in The Cable Guy.

Indeed, one lengthy sequence is so rich in comic horror that it ends the movie ten minutes before the closing credits--the C.G. has managed to get himself invited to dinner at Broderick's parents', and he initiates a game of "Porno Password"; just like the game show but with naughty words. Broderick's parents and girlfriend (Leslie Mann) are amused by the game, and rather put out when Broderick is aghast at having to get his mother (Diane Baker) to guess words like "vagina" and "nipple." The horribly funny nightmarishness of this indignity would be pretty hard to top--certainly the lame attempt at an "action" finale that follows doesn't come close.

There's been a bit of hype about how the film represents a "risk" for Carrey in playing, essentially, the villain in a comic thriller about stalking. But Carrey's basically doing his usual shtick--only the context has changed, and even that context is softer than one might wish. When bright, discerning people I know told me how great Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was, I felt like Broderick when the Cable Guy charms his girlfriend and family.

Even more absurd, there's been some concern that the cable-TV industry might take offense at the film--heaven forfend we get those people pissed. I would hate to add to the glut of people busily taking offense at things in our society, but if anyone has a legitimate beef with The Cable Guy, it's the people who suffer from speech impediments--the film comes close to hinting that the C.G.'s lisp is a symptom of his craziness.

In spite of all this, The Cable Guy is, on balance, passably amusing. It grows increasingly sour as it goes along, though, and it strikes a really bum note at the very end, when a dopey little lecture is smuggled in on how this generation was raised by TV. Too true, maybe, but odd coming from a film which gets its biggest laughs from Carrey's send-ups of Mission: Impossible, The Mod Squad and Star Trek, as well as movies ranging from Midnight Express to Waterworld to Gimme Shelter. Without a theatre full of TV babies, no one would get this film's best jokes.

The Cable Guy:
Directed by Ben Stiller; with Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann, Jack Black, George Segal and Diane Baker.

Rated

 
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