3.5 out of 5 stars

Ben Stiller’s second feature as director, The Cable Guy, never seems sure what it’s supposed to be… a black comedy, a slapstick, a satire on contemporary media overload, or just a vehicle for Jim Carrey’s cavorting contortions? That may derive from people tinkering with the screenplay (producer Judd Apatow, a TV colleague of Stiller’s, reportedly rewrote much of the script originally credited to Lou Holtz Jr.), or it may derive from Stiller’s willingness to give Carrey so much leeway in the title role.

The latter might be understandable. Carrey, riding high on the triple successes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), The Mask (1994) and Dumb and Dumber (1994) the same year, received a record-breaking $20M for his Cable Guy role, and Stiller presumably wanted to make the most of his goofy, gurning star. But it does lead to an uneven film, where many scenes of light-hearted silliness are at odds with a genuinely unsettling darkness. (One critic termed it “a baffling combination” of Ace Ventura and Cape Fear.) Carrey handles both well, with his many eccentricities often appearing threatening rather than endearing, while his talent for physical comedy is indisputable, but these two facets of his performance never sit comfortably together. 

Still, even if much of the humour is only entertaining while it lasts, there’s a difficult-to-pinpoint wrongness about the central character which is less forgettable. And while The Cable Guy didn’t live up to the commercial standards of Carrey’s previous movies, this unexpected quality has earned it a deserved cult following.

John Ottman’s score sets the scene with Hitchcockian spookiness as the story begins. Steven (Matthew Broderick) has split, perhaps only temporarily, with his girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann), and moved into a new apartment on his own. Soon, cable installer Chip (Carrey) arrives, knocking insistently on the door, shouting “cable guy! cable guy!” over and over again until Steven answers.

The cable guy’s strangeness is immediately evident. He talks to the room itself and fondles the walls suggestively as he tries to work out where to put the cable connection, and it’s perhaps a surprise to Steven when he turns up again the next day on a social visit.. but Chip seems affable enough, and he’s done Steven a favour by hooking him up with some free channels. 

What Steven sees as a casual acquaintanceship is clearly more important to Chip. He insists Steven accompany him to the giant satellite dish which brings TV shows into the cable network, a place of almost religious importance to Chip. (He’s impressed by the term “information superhighway”, which in 1996 was a common way of describing the internet, and declares in awe that “soon every American home will integrate their television, phone, and computer!”) This dish will, indeed, reappear for the movie’s climax.

He also gatecrashes Steven’s basketball game, takes him to an absurd theme restaurant called ‘Medieval Times’ (complete with “serving wenches”), and holds a karaoke party in Steven’s apartment. This is all far more than Steven bargained for, or wanted, but he’s not an assertive man, and it’s not until some time later that he gathers the resolve to push Chip out of his life.

Naturally, this turns out to be a bad move and the needy friend is revealed as a fully-fledged stalker. The point brought home by a brief flashback to Chip’s childhood where he’s watching Clint Eastwood’s movie of murderous obsession Play Misty for Me (1971). “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Chip says to Steven. And although he was undoubtedly tiresome as a friend, as an enemy he seems to know no limits.

Much of this is directly down to Carrey’s performance and the many contradictions in his character. His expressions are often inexplicably incompatible with the dialogue, contributing to the impression that he’s forever hiding something (as indeed he turns out to be). His worldview and the rules he expects others to follow are unguessable, and he seems to be constantly scheming and a step ahead of Steven, although he’s not omnipotent and in fact is quite often defeated in small ways.

Carrey was already in his mid-thirties in ’96, but here he’s very much the man-child, lisping (perhaps not a source of humour many movies would risk today), running along the corridor of Steven’s apartment building like an infant, and laughing at apparently random moments. Yet at the same time the way he repeatedly raises his lip above his upper teeth is menacing as well as puerile, and it’s difficult to tell whether he’s hyper-sexualised or just sexually unaware. For example, when he presses himself from behind against another player at the baseball game. “Free cable is the ultimate aphrodisiac”, he believes.

Stiller, as director, is utterly in love with his film’s star and gives Carrey every opportunity to do his thing, whether it’s an improvised gag at ‘Medieval Times’ or a lengthy, crazy karaoke rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”. By comparison, the other actors fade into the background, with only a younger Jack Black’s wonderfully expressive face posing any challenge to Carrey’s own.

Broderick’s character is written as a bland straight man to Carrey’s scene-stealing comic, anyway, and as Variety’s critic wrote, “[his] role strains one’s patience because he’s hopelessly dimwitted and slow to react in any way vaguely resembling human behaviour”. Mann, likewise, is really only there for plot purposes. Owen Wilson also appears in a small role, as does Bob Odenkirk (Nobody) in a tiny one (little more than an extra), while Stiller himself is the star of a running joke: at several points in the movie, characters watch on TV the trial of a “television funnyman [who] killed his own brother in cold blood”, played by the director. 

The overwhelming priority given to Carrey (as unwavering as his character’s attention to Steven) does mean that other elements of the movie fail to satisfy. Black’s vow to investigate the stalker is an interesting plot angle that’s barely followed up, for example, while the sequence where Carrey dresses up as a stereotypical gay clone (droopy ‘tache, sunglasses, etc) simply makes no sense. We assume he’s going to try to embarrass Owen Wilson by pretending to be a lover, but in fact the outfit has nothing at all do with the plan he carries out. As with the very feeble nod at the end to the idea of switching off the screen and reading a book instead—this in a movie that itself relies so much on allusions to other films!—it’s possible that there was more cogency in the original script. But as it is, these weaknesses just magnify The Cable Guy’s complete dependence on Carrey.

He is, of course, something of a love-him-or-hate-him comedian and this, combined with what the Los Angeles Times’s Kenneth Turan called the “clash of sensibilities” in The Cable Guy’s screenplay, doubtless accounts for the way it split audiences. In Empire magazine a few years later Neil Jeffries wondered “whether it was too dark, too radical a departure, or just too crap.” The answer, surely, is that just as individual elements of the movie don’t always fit well into the whole, the extreme darkness that underlies it couldn’t be reconciled with audiences’ expectations of Carrey.

And it is extreme. Though violence in The Cable Guy is limited, there’s always the sense that at any moment it could spill over into slaughter. At its most effective, Stiller’s film is even the equal of bunny-boiling pal-turned-stalker movies like Dominik Moll’s excellent Harry, He’s Here to Help (2000). At its least, though, it’s just a stage set for a stand-up act.

Still, even if it remains more a strange curiosity in its star’s career than a wholly convincing film, the best of it is powerful enough to suggest that somewhere deep in Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller, of all people, lies the potential for a truly disturbing horror movie.

USA | 1996 | 96 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH FRENCH

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Cast & Crew

director: Ben Stiller.
writer: Lou Holtz Jr.
starring: Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann, George Segal & Jack Black