Comedy is often based on anxiety and discomfort, but going one step beyond and trying to create laughter out of terror and psychosis is, "The Cable Guy" shows, a complete miscalculation.
Not funny enough to be a successful comedy and not coherent enough to be taken seriously, the latest film to star the talented Jim Carrey is a baffling combination of "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective" and "Cape Fear," a misguided attempt to extend the actor's range by having him play someone who is demented and dangerous.
An anarchic, unrestrained physical comedian who resembles a flesh-and-blood "Twister," Carrey can generate laughter anywhere, but as "Cable Guy" progresses and his unbalanced system installer gets increasingly sinister, the impulse to so much as chuckle goes away and hides.
While the darkness of the role makes it sound admirable and adventurous, what appears on screen is unformed as well as implausible, a jumble of ideas and scenes that don't mesh. The original script by Lou Holtz Jr. was rewritten by producer Judd Apatow (who lost a much-publicized arbitration), and while it is impossible to say who is responsible for what, the clash of sensibilities is unmistakable.
"Cable Guy" is largely a two-man show, with the calmer protagonist, an architect named Steven, played by Matthew Broderick. A guy so nice he's willing to move out and give girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann) some space when she turns down his marriage proposal, Steven has barely arrived at his new apartment when his TV malfunctions. "Jeez, where's the cable guy already?" he asks. He'll wish he never had.
A fanatical perfectionist obsessed with his job, Carrey's lisping cable operative (we never learn his real name) turns out to be alone in the universe, a man starved for human companionship. He fixates on Steven as perfect best-friend material, and Steven, a wimpy sort, gets hooked into hanging out with him. He even takes the cable guy's advice about how best to get the reluctant Robin back into his life.
The first part of "Cable Guy" is structured as a series of nights out for Steven and his new pal, all of which turn out badly. A pickup basketball game gets ugly when the cable guy reverts to what he calls "prison rules," while a meal at the Medieval Times theme restaurant (yes, there is such a place, and it's in Buena Park) ends with the two men literally trying to kill each other.
Though Carrey's manic behavior has an unnerving edge to it even in these early sequences, laughing at things like his karaoke version of the Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" is hard to resist.
But then the cable guy, living up to his boast that "I can be your best friend or your worst enemy," becomes terrifying and satanic. He beats people up and infiltrates every aspect of Steven's life with the worst kind of sadistic trickery. Off-putting and unfunny, these stunts turn "The Cable Guy" terminally sour.
Director Ben Stiller, who did so well with "Reality Bites," has inexplicably gotten sidetracked into this great dismal swamp. Paradoxically, some of the best moments in "Cable Guy" are a product of the kind of satirical skit humor he and Apatow successfully engaged in on TV's "The Ben Stiller Show."
Funniest of all, in fact, is a running gag starring Stiller himself as Sam Sweet, a grown-up TV child star now the defendant in the Trial of the Century, accused of murdering his identical twin brother Stan and putting the blame elsewhere. A better parody of the coverage of both the Menendez and the Simpson trials you won't likely see.
The mistake "The Cable Guy" makes is taking itself too seriously, thinking that because something is not funny it's automatically worthwhile. The film goes to great lengths to give Carrey's character a back story and even tries to tack on a superfluous message about the joys of reading and the pernicious influence of TV. Anything to distract audiences from the mess that's been made elsewhere.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, dark thematic elements and crude humor. Times guidelines: a risque game of Porno Password and a considerably more frightening character for Jim Carrey than usual.
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'The Cable Guy'
Jim Carrey: Cable Guy
Matthew Broderick: Steven
Leslie Mann: Robin
George Segal: Steven's father
Diane Baker: Steven's mother
Jack Black: Rick
A Bernie Brillstein/Brad Grey, Licht/Mueller Film Corp. production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Ben Stiller. Producers Andrew Licht, Jeffrey A. Mueller, Judd Apatow. Executive producers Brad Grey, Bernie Brillstein, Marc Gurvitz. Screenplay Lou Holtz Jr. Cinematographer Robert Brinkman. Editor Steven Weisberg. Costumes Erica Edell Phillips. Music John Ottman. Production design Sharon Seymour. Art director Jeff Knipp. Set decorator Maggie Martin. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.