Jim Carrey was the undisputed king of Hollywood in June of 1996. He didn’t have the respect, as most people whose fame comes from talking from the butts can tell you. However, Carrey had the money. For his film The Cable Guy, Carrey would be the first actor to make a $20 million paycheck , a large number now that was astonishing then. Why not though? Carrey had become a comedic draw with no equal in the 90s, cranking out massive hit after massive hit. Sure, Dumb & Dumber and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls weren’t critical darlings, but who needs that when you’re making the kind of dough Carrey was about to garner.
With The Cable Guy that changed. A dark comedy with an R-rating, The Cable Guy failed to be another phenomenon, became the, appropriately enough, butt of jokes for years and though it certainly didn’t end Carrey’s career, suddenly made him human. Was it that bad though? Was it just a film that was monumentally different than his other goofier works of the time? Was I nuts for thinking this was a mediocre mess?
Released on June 14, 1996, The Cable Guy stars Jim Carrey as Ernie ‘Chip’ Douglas, a dedicate fan of television whose day job is, obviously, installing cable, a link to the thing he loves the most. Chip isn’t exactly good with people, and when an olive branch of friendship is offered by one of his patrons Steven (Matthew Broderick), the obsession with the idiot box moves to a new place.
With a cast full of soon to be more famous people, including Jack Black, Leslie Mann, Owen Wilson and many more, The Cable Guy was also the brainchild of two of the most prominent voices in 21st Century comedy; Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow. The second directorial effort of Stiller and one of the first few scripts by Apatow, this was a time when neither man’s name carried much weight. Stiller had a cult-favorite television program from earlier in the decade on MTV, but it seemed ages before Meet the Parents or Zoolander turned him into a household name. As such, The Cable Guy was all about Carrey, and with an R-rating hampering his teen boy fans from seeing it, or at least paying to see it, the movie had little chance of maxing out on the actor’s fame. Far from an out-and-out flop, the movie grossed about $60 million domestically, the odd, sole non-$100 million maker over a four-year course that featured seven flicks. Proof of his drawing power this was not.
As a well-established Carrey-nerd from the 90s, having been in middle school when his rise to prominence ascended, I was part of that fandom that was underwhelmed by The Cable Guy. The film-long goofy voice was too much. Matthew Broderick seemed a boring co-lead. It was all just flat. Not bad, but flat. The only real lasting impression the picture had was actually via its soundtrack, which happened to feature new music by Jerry Cantrell and Silverchair and lived in my stereo for months on end.
There is no thought that The Cable Guy will be a masterpiece. I do think there’s a strong chance it’s pretty good though. Stiller, an inconsistent filmmaker, was able to tap into a particularly odd comic vein during the 90s with the aforementioned television series. Equally, while not exactly having a cult following, there have been several pieces written over the years praising the movie’s view of a pop-culture infused mindset infesting citizenry more and more, making it a possibly prescient picture.
I definitely laughed during this revisit of The Cable Guy. It happened, finally, at the 93 minute mark of this of this 96 minute long picture. It was an earned laugh, I will give the filmmakers that. There’s a narrative beat of the movie where Carrey’s character keeps using aliases inspired by various television personalities. In the closing of the picture, as all the craziness and fights have finally subsumed, Broderick’s character asks Carrey what his real name is, to which the titular character replies with wide grin, “It’s Ricardo…Ricky Ricardo,” and then lets out the classic Ricky howl. It’s the one bit of absurdity that doesn’t scream for you to find it funny.
And yes. This movie screams.
Carrey was only two years away from The Truman Show restructuring his career into one that mixed the slapstick with the pathos, yet here it feels decades from happening. From the lisp to the bellowing of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” Stiller’s camera is less an active participant of the story than a witness of Carrey’s relentless mannerisms. Going this big can work as long as the script provides quality lines or the project has equally engaging presences. The Cable Guy has neither, as Apatow’s script struggles for humor that goes beyond the pronouncement of the word nipple and Broderick’s character is the wettest of fish. This dull, ho-hum nature would be something used to remarkable effect on screen soon after this movie in Alexander Payne’s Election, where Broderick’s ordinariness was a point of despair and regret. Here, we have a nothing-person bewildered by a loud-mouth and little more.
What is supposed to push The Cable Guy to the next level are its theme and darkness. The former is compelling and underdeveloped. Carrey goes on and on about how the world of 1996 is on the cusp of a new future, where kids can play video games with friends across the globe and one can interact with museums a continent away. The film feels scared of this inevitability, with the only one praising its arrival being the loon. Now, the loon is meant to have been raised by television, or as its called in the last act, “The Babysitter.” That loon is too wacky to be seen a real threat, undercutting the darkness of the dark comedy. Blackmail, theft and prostitution can be a subject matter rich for unnerving humor; the tone matters. For Stiller and Apatow, that tone is a notch away from Ace Ventura.
Even the ending skips from digging into an eerie hole, as the world, in a manner similar to The Truman Show, sits transfixed to a real life drama. In this case, it’s a pseudo Menendez Brothers, “Hard Copy/Current Affair” murder case. In both situations, the end comes abruptly, one featuring Truman leaving his world of real make-believe and the other’s jury verdict failing to reach viewers due to the destruction of a satellite. For the Truman Show, that conclusion is met with emotions of joy, anguish and everything in between. For The Cable Guy, an allegedly dark tale, we see a man, Kyle Gas of Tenacious D of all people, turning his eyes from the tube to a book, which he smiles at and begins to read. Oh brother.