Jim Carrey’s Brilliant Dark Side

When Jim Carrey became the first recipient of a $20 million star salary in the mid-’90s, it capped off a remarkable, nigh-meteoric rise: since coming to prominence with the surprise hit Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Carrey went on a tear with four more box-office winners: The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever, and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, all within 24 months, and all capitalizing on his rubbery facility for physical comedy.

The movie that broke his streak was also the reason for that massive payday: The Cable Guy, a 1996 comedy-thriller that cast Carrey’s weirdness into darker, more shadowy territory. Though the movie made back its budget (and grossed nearly the equivalent of Carrey’s salary in its first weekend), neither audiences nor critics were pleased, and it became yet another movie synonymous with “costly misfire”. Just about everyone involved suffered a career setback.

DVD: The Cable Guy

Film: The Cable Guy

Director: Ben Stiller

Studio: Sony

Cast: Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann, Jack Black

Release date: 2011-03-01

Distributor: Sony

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/hassenger-cableguy-cvr.jpgFifteen years later, though, as it makes its Blu-Ray debut in an “anniversary edition” that would’ve sounded like a punchline in 1996, The Cable Guy looks like a breeding ground for comedy stars of the future. It was directed by Ben Stiller, who would go on to comedy stardom of his own, and experience more success as a director with Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. Producer (and uncredited screenwriter) Judd Apatow has become a namebrand as a comedy godfather, as well as a successful writer-director in his own right. Jack Black and Owen Wilson both have supporting roles, as does Apatow’s now-wife Leslie Mann.

This explains why The Cable Guy shows more ambition than the Carrey comedies that preceded it. Stiller’s film merges two subgenres, the pesty-buddy comedy and the stalker-thriller, that turn out to be surprisingly compatible on a thematic level. Matthew Broderick plays Steven Kovacs, a mild, slightly whiny fellow, smarting from a recent sorta-breakup, who is befriended by an even lonelier guy, alias Chip Douglas (Carrey), who invades his life and refuses to leave.

That Chip is Steven’s cable guy plugs into Stiller’s pop-culture satirist bona fides; this is a movie that essentially asks, at what price free cable? Indeed, Chip’s manic neediness may have been formed from a lifetime of television, the kind of media babysitting that can create a psychotic — or, for that matter, a comedian. Naturally, Carrey throws himself into the role, stretching the boundaries of his spastic persona, and it’s one of his best performances to this point in his career.

Outfitted with dark close-cropped hair, a cartoonish lisp, and an aggressively jutting lower jaw, Carrey unleashes a more unsettling, angrier yet more pitiable riff on the kind of loud, borderline-freakish comedy he practiced in the Ace Ventura movies. Chip’s pursuit of Steven has the single-mindedness of a Looney Tune premise, and is similarly freed from the mandate of likability (as well as, it seems at times, physics). Carrey’s comedy has always held an element of performance art — what he’s doing isn’t always as funny as the fact that he is doing it — and it reaches some kind of deranged apex with Chip’s writing, red-eyed karaoke rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”.

Carrey boils down this go-for-broke weirdness in a retrospective commentary track (which also includes Apatow and Stiller): “The more people pay me,” he explains, “the more I want to rebel,” recalling a similar instinct that spurred his goofy bowl-cut and chipped tooth following a pay bump for Dumber and Dumber. Though comedians in general have a reputation for seeking audience validation, Carrey insists that he feels uneasy with the expectation of crowd-pleasing, instead feeling more beholden to what he personally finds funny. The $20 million check may have generated a lot of bad press, but it also apparently gave him the perverse encouragement to capitalize on his early promise.

But while The Cable Guy is more conceptually clever than Carrey’s movies to this point, it can’t quite escape the confines of his one-man-show style. It has some funny side gags, like Stiller’s running background role as a murderous child star on trial for killing his twin, but Carrey still plays the mad soloist as Broderick stands back and acts normal, which is to say perplexed and eventually frustrated. Even faced with people we now know as strong personalities — Wilson and Black — Carrey mostly treats them as walls to bounce off of.

Eventually, this strategy grows monotonous; apart from the semi-tedious set-up and character development for Steven, the movie essentially consists of six or seven outlandish set pieces featuring Chip’s insane behavior. The first few have surprisingly pleasant outcomes for Steven; then they don’t. Apart from that switch, the movie doesn’t really build, and in fact is a bit choppy, lacking — like so many Carrey comedies — a strong sense of purpose during the connective-tissue scenes between his most feverish riffs.

The connective material might’ve had more bite; 25-minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray reveal further the parallels between Steven and Chip, specifically in the area of neediness. These additional moments, downplayed in the final cut, make Broderick appear even less likable (whining to Mann about taking him back) and Carrey appear even more like a lunatic (if that’s possible). Stiller, the quietest participant on the commentary, notes that looking at the material again, he thinks it should’ve been left in, and allowed to take the movie further into the dark territory it explores.

Still, the comedy titans who made The Cable Guy are steadfast in their enjoyment of it (they had a great time making it, Stiller recalls, “up until the day it came out”), and removed from the hype of an actor’s record pay and a sunny summer movie season, others seem to be catching on, too. The movie has developed a better reputation not so much due to a critical misreading during its release, but, I think, because the idea of a dark, off-putting stalker comedy starring Carrey now feels more like refreshment than folly.

Carrey would reach another career peak a few years later in The Truman Show, playing a guy who grows up on the other side of the TV screen. But this second meditation on the ills of television featured a more restrained Carrey, not a further unhinging of his goofball appeal. After the financial disappointment of The Cable Guy, Carrey would divide his ambitions more neatly: the elastic broad comedies and/or family fantasies in one pile, the occasional forays into drama in another. His broad comedies aren’t, on average, very good, which means many of his best post-Cable performances have occurred either in the harmless vacuum of a subpar movie or, more often, in movies that aren’t principally comedies, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the funny but affecting Truman Show.

But I Love You Phillip Morris, now on DVD following an extended stay on the shelf and a small-scale U.S. release, may be his first great, fully-formed performance to take full advantage of his comic gifts. His earlier peaks played against his comic aggression, but I Love You Phillip Morris is his first movie in ages where he directs that comic energy and springy physicality into a fully realized character.

That character happens to be a real guy: Steven Russell, a con artist who has one life stories so ridiculous it must be true, with a dark-comic edge that attracted Bad Santa screenwriters Glen Ficarra and John Requa, making their directorial debut. The first twenty minutes of the movie whip through the first few acts of Russell’s strange life, peeling back layers of his deception: he finds out he was adopted, gets married, becomes a cop, uses that job to track down his birth mother who rejects him, gets into a car crash, comes out as gay, starts pulling scams to finance his new lifestyle, and winds up in prison.

This amount of backstory seems like a recipe for typical biopic overload, but it turns out to be perfectly suited to Carrey’s breakneck commitment; he keeps up with the story’s pace, not performing, as he often seems to, in a movie that runs at half his speed. The film slows down, if only slightly, when Russell meets fellow inmate Phillip Morris (played by Ewan McGregor; no relation to the cigarette company); they fall in love, and for the rest of the movie, Russell flies in and out of prison, trying to pull the right strings to keep them together.

A Silver Lining ‘Round the Pitch-Black Gags

Russell’s many guises recall a variety of past Carrey roles: he starts out a cop (as in Me, Myself, and Irene), poses as a lawyer (bluffing his way through court like his beleaguered slicker in Liar Liar), and cons his way into the finance industry (shades of the disgruntled, laid-off employee in Fun with Dick and Jane); and what are a series of elaborate cons if not an attempt, in a sense, to play God (a la Bruce Almighty)?

Those movies, like The Cable Guy (which features its own kind of con man in Carrey’s pseudonymous Chip Douglas), largely feature Carrey doing shtick while the other actors, maybe even the filmmakers, stand back and watch. But Phillip Morris, for all of its pitch-black gags about financial fraud, prison beatings, and Russell’s pathological deception, is surprisingly grounded when it comes to Russell’s relationship with Morris, who McGregor plays as naïve and perhaps even a little dim, but utterly sweet. McGregor doesn’t try to match Carrey’s intensity, but he doesn’t shrink from him, either.

DVD: I Love You Phillip Morris

Film: I Love You Phillip Morris

Director: Glen Ficarra and John Requa

Studio: Roadside Attractions

Cast: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann

Release Date: 2011-04-05

Distributor: Lionsgate

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/hassenger-loveyouphillip-cvr.jpgConstantly on the run but actually chasing after something, Carrey the actor seems free even when he’s expertly conveying the scrambling panic and desperation as walls close in on Russell (as they do, repeatedly). The part also provides an outlet abandonment and self-destructive issues Carrey makes joking reference to on the Cable Guy commentary. For a time, Russell earns money semi-legitimately as a CFO — his credentials are a sham, but his aptitude for the job seems genuine. But just as Carrey the star mistrusted his own $20 million payday, Russell starts ripping off his own company, forging another comparison to a dogged born comic: he just can’t help himself.

Though Carrey refers to I Love You Phillip Morris during the new Cable Guy commentary, he’s absent from the I Love You Phillip Morris track — disappointing, given the number of participants. But Ficarra and Requa make ample reference to Carrey’s sometimes uncanny, sometimes downright peculiar talent: apparently he can locate the center of the camera lens offhand better than any actor they’ve seen, perhaps part of his innate physical dexterity. They also point out which moments were Carrey’s improvisations; they turn out to be some of the best moments of the film, like the darkly hilarious early scene where Russell confronts his birth mother and can’t get past the screen door slammed in his face.

As with his bigger comedies, then, I Love You Phillip Morris is a major showcase for Carrey. The difference this time is that the movie isn’t just a treadmill designed to keep Carrey front and center. Ficarra and Requa’s daring leaps of tone recall, by various turns, the brothers Coen and Farrelly, giving their actor the depth and texture for an awards-caliber performance. It’s his best movie in years.

A shame, then, that I Love You Phillip Morris is also Carrey’s lowest-grossing, least-seen movie since he became a superstar. Though he’s still a big name, his clout wasn’t enough to get the film into more than 100 US theaters, less a victim of Carrey’s diminished returns than the fallen overall star market. As it turns out, he would be one of the last stars to reach the threshold of popularity that resulted in the (delightful) Cable Guy folly.

A few other comedians in his peer group, notably fellow stand-up/sketch comedian Adam Sandler and old buddy Ben Stiller, went on to join him on the A-list, and certainly others — Leonardo DiCaprio; Russell Crowe; Robert Downey Jr. — have become non-comic box office draws since 1996. But Carrey was one of the last stars of recent history (maybe second-to-last, followed by the indomitable Will Smith) to establish such a strong brand, to serve as the main box office attraction rather than a major asset.

Carrey gives his all in both The Cable Guy and I Love You Phillip Morris, bravely exposing his darker impulses while scoring big, sometimes uncomfortable laughs. But by the time he reached his later breakthrough, far fewer people were looking. Or maybe they were looking for something else: that familiar soloist in an innocuous vacuum.