There was no bigger comedy superstar in the 1990s than Jim Carrey. The guy had one helluva 1994, bursting on the scene with the trifecta of Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber spaced evenly across the calendar year. He was on top of the world, and in 1995 his Riddler dominated the incredibly bizarre Batman Forever. Then there was a mediocre Ace Ventura sequel, but it didn’t hurt his star power; the toothy grins and rubber-faced manic genius of Jim Carrey had already defined comedy for an entire decade, so some cash grab sequel wasn’t going to ruin that.
But then, Carrey decided to step away from the goofiest of goofball comedies, turning in his crazy hairdos for a black buzzcut and a lisp in Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy. He went darker, more threatening, and the shift in persona was too jarring for audiences expecting to see their favorite court jester play lovably stupid again. The result was a middling box office, flaccid reviews, and general dismissal from critics and audiences. The experiment proved to be Carrey’s first true misstep.
The Cable Guy turned twenty this month, and over the years it’s aged better than just about anything in Jim Carrey’s comedy portfolio. Carrey has evolved into an actor with much more than physical comedy in his bag, and the roots of his later diversity trace back to Stiller’s sharp, weirdly offbeat tale of a mentally-unstable cable guy just trying to make a friend.
That friend is Matthew Broderick’s Steven Kovacs. All Steven wants is cable, and what he gets instead is a borderline psychotic stalker named (allegedly) Chip Douglas. Carrey plays Chip as a person we all sort of know, and all know to avoid. He’s the kid in school who aggressively tries to shoehorn his way into cliques or pretends to like things in order to curry favor with literally anyone who takes the time to acknowledge him. He’s the co-worker who finds out you enjoy baseball and subsequently beats you into submission with baseball talk, despite the fact he has no interest in the sport.
In other words, Chip Douglas is an incredibly lonely individual. And that’s what Stiller and writer Lou Holtz Jr. understand with the character. Much like the people we all know in life, what begins as weird can evolve into mockery; you laugh about the guy’s obsessive need to make friends with you actual friends. Then it turns more desperate, less amusing. Then what if it becomes dangerous? Amusement becomes worry, which eventually becomes a desperate sadness. That’s the sort of path The Cable Guy takes, albeit through pitch perfect dark comedy and moments of absurd, heightened reality.
Chip just starts showing up. He calls Steven, he interferes in his life. He makes an appearance at the gym for a pick-up basketball game, which becomes the greatest moment in the entire picture. And if that’s up for debate, it’s between that scene and the dinner scene at Medieval Times, a true time capsule of mid 90s pop culture. Even at the time, Medieval Times was a joke, and Stiller knows this. But he doesn’t play up the absurdity of the scene, he simply allows the audience to snicker under their breath at the exasperation of Janeane Garofalo’s Pepsi wench.
The intrusive acts grow more desperate and threatening, and the film itself grows more ominous. Chip interferes with Steven’s love life. He buys a hooker (unbeknownst to Steven) and stages a party with stolen goods, he sabotages him at work, and his intrusiveness becomes more profoundly damaging than merely an annoyance. There are stark tonal shifts in The Cable Guy, which is often times a recipe for disaster. But here they work perfectly to mirror the fractured psyche of Chip and his increasingly dangerous exploits. The entire film is drab and washed out, creating a sinister foreboding palette which, for 1996 audiences, may have been too much. And it treads into some genuinely frightening waters, none more so than the nightmare sequence.
After twenty years, the film is rather striking and the cinematic language feels precise. This is a lean picture, a comedy shaped by thriller tropes, and Stiller balances everything brilliantly.
The Cable Guy also examines the TV Generation. Adults in 1996 grew up with sitcoms shaping their lives, sometimes more than their own parents, and in Chip’s case being raised by TV was most severe. After some investigation, Steven and his friend (Jack Black) figure out Chip isn’t his name – it’s a character from My Three Sons – and Steven begins piecing together the fractured childhood of his stalker. It invites sympathy into the story right when things are getting almost too bleak. And then there’s the riff on the Lyle and Eric Menendez trial, always on TV in the background. It’s a deft satirical touch and works as connective tissue between the troubled childhood of Chip and the continuous obsession with television.
Carrey has always been a dedicated actor, both physically and mentally. Here, he pushes all his crazy chips to the center of the table and gambles on a challenging role very early in his rising stardom. He may have failed initially. But time is often kinder to films like this, which lives on the fringes of so many genres without falling into the standard identifiers of any of them.
The Cable Guy is deserving of a new life, maybe even a cult following… and wouldn’t that be ironic?