[19 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s a very interesting question indeed: outside of a single turn as the voice of a cartoon elephant, is Jim Carrey still a viable box office draw? Better still, in a world filled with Apatow-inspired bromance slacker comedies, are his rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis on Jolt Cola antics still funny? His last two live action roles where nothing special (Fun with Dick and Jane, The Number 23) and he’s had a couple of high profile projects (Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with Tim Burton, for one) fall through. But now, the man once known for literally talking out his ass is back, hoping to garner a bit of that Liar, Liar cred that made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable buffoons. Unfortunately, Yes Man is so subtle in what it tries to accomplish that Carrey’s over the top shenanigans don’t satisfy. Instead, they stand out like an incredibly dated sore thumb.
Carl Allen is a painfully unhappy man. Miserable ever since his divorce and lost in a dead end job, his friends feel he’s headed toward an interpersonal crash. One day, he runs into an old buddy who appears exceedingly vibrant and alive. He’s just come back from a seminar run by self-help guru Terrence Bundley, and the advice he’s been given is simple - just say “Yes” to everything. No negatives. Just positives. Reluctantly embracing the philosophy at first, Carl soon learns that constantly agreeing has its drawbacks. It also has its benefits, as he starts seeing a free spirited rock chick poet named Allison. Soon, life is wonderful for the former loser. He gets promoted, he reconnects with his pals, and his relationship with Allison is going gangbusters. But you can only agree with everything for so long before it comes back to bite you, and Carl soon discover the pitfalls - mostly personal - of being so agreeable.
With a premise far more promising than anything offered up onscreen, and a star treading water where once he tore shit up, Yes Man is a comedy in theory only. Jokes are made, funny things are said, and yet director Peyton Reed (slumming once again since making the oddly enjoyable retro gem Down with Love) can’t get things to gel. Carrey isn’t really to blame. After all, he’s working with a script that gesticulates wildly from clever RomCom meet cutes to old ladies giving blow jobs. This is humor as hodgepodge, everything but the crapped in kitchen sink tossed together in hopes that something satiric, or silly, or slapstick will occur. For every quasi-inventive moment (the ultra naïve New Zealand co-worker Norman is a nice touch) and rock solid emotional sentiment (Zooey Deschanel’s quirk girl damsel in distress is wonderfully winning), we are treated to pages ripped off and out of our lead’s book of formerly guaranteed laugh getters.
Yet now, they don’t work. Carrey was once the king of embarrassing behavior, unafraid to push the limits of likeability and realism to make his character’s click. Look back at his work in such films as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Cable Guy, Me, Myself, and Irene, or Dumb and Dumber and you’ll see someone going ape to try to make a maniac mountain out of a minor motivational molehill. Even when he’s taken it down several notches and gone serious (The Truman Show, The Majestic), he’s rooted his performances in a stylized reality. Not anymore. Carrey wants to be an average schmoe, albeit one who can still riff on Red Bull and go a drunken one-on-one with a pumped up bar patron. But in the interim between project delays and flops, comedy has passed Carrey by. What worked a few years ago seems as passé as the late Chris Farley’s fat guy goofballing.
That’s not to say that Yes Man completely fails, but there is a much better film to be found inside all the mugging and high concept contrivances. The notion of one man finding himself with the power of positive thinking and the newfound hope in the acceptance of life could be played for both humor and the handkerchiefs. Give us a strong enough protagonist, a philosophy that doesn’t feel ripped off from a dozen EST offshoots, and a relationship we can root for, and something like this would work and work well. But Reed can only manage one out of three, and even though it’s supposedly based on a book by Scot Danny Wallace, everything here feels false. Even when we buy into the budding kinship between Carrey and Deschanel, it’s because of the natural ease between the actors, not anything offered within the narrative.
Indeed, Yes Man takes a fast track into tedium the minute a spontaneous trip to Lincoln, Nebraska becomes a skewered spoof of the War on Terror. Allison misunderstands Carl’s motives, the Feds fall into familiar patterns of arrest first and ignore the answers to their questions later, and everything hinges on a hospital stay, a borrowed street bike, and that most hamfisted of ‘80s third act answers - the chase. That’s right, when all else fails, but your star in a butt-revealing hospital gown, get him on a physics defying vehicle of some sort, and watch as the editing and shot selection try to make things exciting and nail-biting. While we want to see a resolution to the last remaining plot threads, tying things up with some stuntwork seems unimaginative at best.
Perhaps Carrey is a concept whose time has truly past. Maybe he needs to go back to making family fare and the occasional oddball curveball choice (any calls from Tarantino you haven’t taken, Mr. Jim?). If films like Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or Role Models have proved anything, it’s that a successful comedy in 2008 has to rely on more than just pratfalls and forced outrageousness to win over audiences. For someone who has traded almost exclusively in the world of brazen cinematic clowning, Jim Carrey can no longer hang. Had Yes Man embraced this and gone for something sensible, we might have a clever and inventive effort. As it stands, we are treated to the same old material filtered through a wit worn out since before George W. Bush took power. That’s a little too long to be adrift inside the laughfest landscape.