Yes Man

2008-12-19 (General release)

Tillie (Fionnula Flanagan) is the occasion for a recurring joke in Yes Man. It begins innocently enough. A white-haired grandmother-type, partly nosy and partly eager to please, she likes to greet her neighbor Carl (Jim Carrey) when he exits his apartment, offering him breakfast and a bit of friendly inquiry. Carl, by contrast, is loath to spend any sort of time with anyone. And she he does his best during each encounter to slip away, putting off Tillie’s advances with predictable, awkward asperity.

This is a pattern until Carl, a, L.A. bank loan officer known to his supervisor (Norman, played by Rhys Darby) and his best friends Pete (Bradley Cooper) and Rooney (Danny Masterson) as a definitive stick in the mud, finds his inner “yes man.” After three years of mourning the loss of his ex-wife Stephanie (Molly Sims) and rejecting all efforts by males to engage him in good-buddyness, Carl is sucked into a hotel ballroom seminar. Here he’s accosted by seminar leader Terrence (Terence Stamp) and a horde of chanting seminar adherents. “Most nights,” Terrence bleats into his face, “You’re so bored and filled with ennui that you can’t even muster the energy to masturbate.” Carl nods, his lip trembling, showing himself to be the easy mark the movie demands he be. Pummeled into submission by the pounding piped-in music and the increasingly raucous crowd, Carl confesses to his lack of a sex life and capitulates. From here on, he agrees to agree to everything, to be open to all experiences and answer every question with an assent, no matter who asks.

Carl’s first night of yessing actually seems auspicious: he takes a homeless guy (Brent Briscoe) up to Elysian Park, where he runs out of gas, cell phone battery, and patience. At least until he meets the incredible Allison (Zooey Deschanel), a girl completely delightful and dazzlingly unpredictable. She overlooks his grumpiness, makes fun of his sad story, and absolutely enchants him with her sweet and slightly salty affect (she is Zooey Deschanel, after all, and so remains just the right amount of offbeat, no matter how thickly the script lays on her assignment as Ideal Object). By the ned of the evening, when Allison bestows on Carl a kiss, he’s lit up with resurgent desire for endearing and alluring female contact. Yes, he knows now, is exactly right.

And so, the next time he meets up with Tillie… you know where this is going. He agrees to go to her apartment. He agrees to help her put up shelves. And he agrees, after some emotional back-and-forthing and Carreyan pratfalling, to a blow-job. It’s a minor element in Carl’s plot, as he’s utterly preoccupied by Allison, and makes it his business to woo her — agreeing to take her jogging-photography class, agreeing to love her feminist art-rock show, agreeing to fly with her to the place where the next flight out of LAX will take them. (It happens to be Lincoln Nebraska, and they are, of course, enchanted by the cows, the phone museum, the football, and each other.) But the Tillie business comes up a few times in Yes Man, each illustrating the relatively younger man’s discomfort at the thought of sex with her and the sheer pleasure she delivers — despite and because of that initial discomfort.

In this, Tillie is actually not so different from the other girls in this film about men. Stephanie is immediately dismissible as a selfish and remote beauty (with devastatingly bad taste in men, as she first picked Carl at his pre-yes yuckiest and now has a similarly self-focused fiancé) and Pete’s fiancée Lucy (Sasha Alexander) is similarly shallow, her primary function being to enlist Carl as the organizer of her bridal shower, thus unleashing gender-bending hilarity. That this agreement leads Carl to meet, then converse in Korean (which he has learned on another yes-dare) and sympathize with the unhappy bridal store clerk Soon-Mi (Vivian Bang) only reinforces the idea that this film has assigned its women feeble roles indeed, propping up Carl’s journey toward self-fulfillment and never heading much of anywhere themselves.

Allison seems, for a brief time, the anti-Tillie. For if Tillie, serving up her own version of sublimity for Carl and other boys in need of self-confirmation, is the most obvious embodiment of such distraction-as-plot, Allison appears independent and courageous and nice, to boot. And so Allison is lassoed into a very familiar boy-man’s romance, not at all the one she has initiated. Her openness to experience makes her Carl’s best hope for survival, his best possible yes, but her own decisions, at last, are framed by his.

RATING 4 / 10