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Yes Man and financial hubris

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Thursday, Apr 9, 2009

This is obvious and probably has been commented on many times, but the Jim Carrey movie The Yes Man is a pretty good encapsulation of the pre-economic-depression mentality in America. In the film—which, admittedly, I saw in a semi-delusional state on a flight yesterday—Carrey plays a low-level loan officer in a California bank. The opening scenes set up the idea that his character is too guarded, too careful, too risk-averse and is therefore missing out on the opportunities life presents us with. One of his friends—played I think by the actor who played the cop at the car pound in The Big Lebowski (“Leads? Yeah I’ll just check with the boys down at the crime lab.”)—takes him to see a motivational speaker who persuades him to say yes to everything. As part of that program, we see Carrey dutifully okaying all sorts of absurd small-business loans without so much as an inspection of the paperwork. Now, obviously, that sounds a bit like what they were doing at Countrywide and Washington Mutual, not to mention the fly-by-night brokers who brought us Ninja and liar loans—extend credit to anybody and everybody and let the chips fall where they may. The difference, though, is that most would-be borrowers are not entrepreneurs; they are somewhat instinctively risk-averse, and it required massive targeted marketing efforts to encourage ordinary people to borrow more, to ignore the common-sense skepticism of free money and say yes to the opportunity that perpetually rising home equity was said to provide.


So the opportunity is there for the film to play as a satire to the easy credit of the bubble years, but viewers must read it against the grain. The film itself isn’t satirical at all and has nothing to say in favor of prudent risk management. Its big message is that when we say yes to everything, it’s hard to know when we really mean it, or rather, it’s hard for others to judge our sincerity and know which of our desires are “real”. It verges initially on the somewhat subversive message that we have no real desires at all, only circumstances and opportunities. During the film’s build-up, when the rate at which Carrey is agreeing to do things is building momentum, his character becomes pointedly schizophrenic, and other characters comment on how unpredictable he is. He starts to have no fixed identity at all and slips toward the post-structural ideal of moving beyond subjectivity to some existence of unbounded free play. But then, of course, the film’s main lesson kicks in: that this identity-free state is utterly unacceptable. His love interest—a sort of phony free spirit played by Zooey Deschanel; she is in a Flight of the Conchords-type band, rides a scooter, and isn’t hung up, as she says at one point, with being “mainstream”—shuns him because she can’t know if his love is real. Love, of course, is always the primary bait for the identity trap, but in films like these, it always seems like a punishment, defined by upholding dreary, rote responsibilities defined by social expectations that often reflect the consumer-society prerogatives of buying the right gifts or experiences to prove love. This is the quintessential set-up for comedies—it’s fun to vacation from responsibility, but ultimately we should crave the return to stability, typically figured and symbolized as heterosexual love, with the strong implication that raising a family will be next. We have to reproduce the status quo, after all.


That traditional theme of reaffirming the reality principle is now overshadowed by the light the financial crisis now sheds on the film’s historicity. The peculiar delusions of the decade—that no one ever really defaults, that all loans can be made good, that a lack of optimism is a kind of character defect—now show up in sharp relief, because paradoxically enough, the films’ producers seem to have taken them so much for granted. In the movie, the idea of “Getting to yes” gets supplanted by a much more convenient negotiation strategy (just say yes) that is blithely presented as sound. No one has to compromise or put forth any effort, and everybody wins! Carrey’s character is even praised by one of his bank’s higher-ups, who interprets the lack of risk management as the introduction of a profitable microlending program. These touches are now local color from a tour through the zeitgeist of 2006.

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