A lonely and disturbed cable guy raised on television just wants a new friend, but his target, a designer, rejects him, with bad consequences
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If one were to look only at the pieces that went into assembling the puzzling 1996 black comedy The Cable Guy, it would seem that all of the elements for an all-time classic were there from the start. The star: Jim Carrey, at that time one of the most bankable actors of any genre in Hollywood, who beat out Chris Farley for the title role in this film, netting himself a then-controversial and record-setting $20 million paycheck in the process. The co-producer (and uncredited co-writer): Judd Apatow, now known the world over as one of the annoyingly credited “guys” behind such recent smash hits as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad. The director: Ben Stiller, fresh off a critically heralded sketch comedy series on Fox and himself on the way to becoming one of Hollywood’s most lucrative comic leading men. How could the combined strengths of these three mega-talents produce anything less than laugh-a-minute comedy nirvana? Well, for starters, they could have produced The Cable Guy.
To be fair, the film’s screenplay, credited to Lou Holtz Jr. (after Apatow lost a WGA arbitration to obtain co-credit for his work), contains the raw materials for a tale both funny and touched with potential social relevance. Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) has recently been thrown out of his house by his lady love Robin (Leslie Mann) for the crime of proposing marriage to her. Setting himself up in his own new digs, he has the misfortune to receive a visit from the cable guy from hell. Chip Douglas (Carrey), a jut-jawed, lisping doofus, wastes no time in insinuating himself into Steven’s new lonely-guy lifestyle, and Steven’s request for free illegal cable, a deal he sweetens with a $50 bill, results in Chip latching onto him like a coaxial-tentacled lamprey. It turns out that this cable guy is a deeply damaged individual, warped beyond repair by a childhood spent shackled to the electronic cathode-ray “babysitter” by his neglectful floozy of a mother. Alternately menacing and pathetic, Chip uses Steven’s latent guilt over his cable theft to slowly destroy the life of his new “best friend”. Before it’s all said and done, Steven loses his job, gets thrown in jail for grand larceny, is photographed in a compromising position with a prostitute, almost gets brained with a mace during an armor-clad duel at the Medieval Times theme restaurant, and is forced to utter horrific words to his own mother during a Chip-led dinner-party game of “porno Password”.
All of this makes the film sound much more laugh-inducing than it actually is, but the problem is that Chip, for all of Carrey’s goofy vocal antics and live-wire physical spasmodics, is not a movie-comedy nutcase. He’s genuinely insane, disturbingly so. The film’s first act sets us up to expect fairly standard-issue Jim Carrey hijinks, with Chip disrupting Steven’s pickup basketball game with buddies, a raucous karaoke rendition of “Somebody to Love”, and the ridiculous visit to Medieval Times (this sequence, complete with Stiller’s old sketch-comedy partner Janeane Garofalo as the boys’ “serving wench”, is easily the film’s comic highlight). But before long, Chip is planting hidden cameras in Steven’s place, spying on Robin as she undresses, and administering a shockingly brutal beating to Robin’s date (a pre-stardom Owen Wilson) in a restaurant bathroom. By the time Chip, on the phone with Steven, doesn’t even flinch as a daddy longlegs crawls across his face, he’s moved far out of slapstick buffoon territory into the genuinely creepy, and what started out as a variation on the classic What About Bob? thing-that-wouldn’t-leave comic scenario has become a nightmare, a home-invasion thriller peppered with incongruous pop-culture comedy riffs. Reports prior to the film’s release indicate that the original Cable Guy screenplay was much lighter in tone than the finished product (indeed, many of the film’s darker digressions were inserted at Carrey’s insistence), and one assumes that Farley, who had one year earlier struck a fine comic balance between splenetic frustration and puppy-dog earnestness in Tommy Boy, would have been able to bring the same aspects to the original conception of Chip Douglas. As it stands, The Cable Guy’s drastic tonal shift renders the overtly humorous aspects of Carrey’s work thoroughly incongruous, and transforms the performance into a dual betrayal, both of the character’s psycho integrity and of the audience’s expectations for a Jim Carrey summer comedy.
Still, while The Cable Guy is not a hilarious film, it can not be called a boring one. Stiller’s direction remains bravely true to the film’s dark comic vision, complete with moody, occasionally surreal images (including an actual dream sequence that makes Chip over into a green-eyed demon); the film’s cinematography, by Robert Brinkmann, is unusually impressive for a comedy. The soundtrack features some unexpectedly interesting cues; the bathroom-assault sequence alone is scored to both Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman”. And somehow, in spite of the misguided conception of the film’s narrative, there is genuine tension as Steven finds Chip’s noose of blackmail and implied physical threat beginning to tighten, enough so that one begins to suspect that the film might have worked just as well as a straight thriller as it would have as a more light-hearted, straightforward comedy.
The film harbors some thematic ambitions as well, as the screenplay flirts with intriguing statements about the dangers of letting television shape both our own conceptions of reality and that of our children. Chip Douglas, for all his malice and menace, never really had a chance, thanks to the deadbeat mom who plunked him down in front of the TV and surrendered her parental responsibilities to the same people who gave us The Jerry Springer Show, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, and Flavor of Love. He can only conceive of the world in terms of the images that shaped his childhood; Chip Douglas isn’t even his real name, but one of a string of TV-inspired aliases (including Jean-Luc Picard, Darren Stevens, and “the Big Ragu”) he has used to hide his true identity. Maybe he doesn’t have one. Maybe he’s nothing more than the sum total of the pieces of pop-cultural detritus clattering around in his damaged skull. This reality has turned Chip into the warped individual he has become, and it’s not until cold hard reality smacks him dead in the face that he realizes his destiny, that “somebody has to kill the babysitter.” It’s a daring course of action for a comedy to take, not to mention prescient in light of the horrors that the reality-TV boom were to foist upon us just a few short years later. But it’s not entirely successful, mainly because Stiller and the writers don’t go far enough in painting television as a truly pervasive and detrimental force in the lives of its users. Chip is the only one portrayed as having suffered any ill effects at the hands of the cathode mother, and even Steven’s great crime, his willingness to become essentially a thief just so he can watch movies for free, is brushed aside by the forward momentum of the narrative. The film’s most ham-handed attempt at media satire comes through its frequent interpolations of footage from the trial of “Sam Sweet” (Stiller), a former TV child-star accused of murdering his twin-brother co-star. It’s clear that the film is attempting to needle us for our insatiable hunger for salacious sensationalism and sleaze, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough, and the trial’s similarities to the real-life Menendez brothers case renders the joke dated as well as toothless.
More than many other comedy actors of late, Jim Carrey has been defined by a willingness to take risks, to step outside his and the audience’s comic comfort zone and to gamble with dramatic roles, chancy narratives and drastic alterations of his onscreen image. The Cable Guy was his first such roll of the cinematic dice, and while it was ultimately unsuccessful, it helped pave the way for such gutsy triumphs as the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, the romantic fantasy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (in which he deftly channeled the vision of another singular talent named Kaufman), and The Truman Show, a film that nailed exactly the kind of media-age satire The Cable Guy only flirted with half-heartedly. So while the film is hardly the actor’s best, it was perhaps necessary as a warm-up for audiences, a harbinger of interesting things to come. Carrey, Apatow and Stiller can all classify this one as a swing and a miss. But they had quite a few home runs in them yet.