“In Defense Of…” is a series of posts spotlighting the overlooked, underappreciated, and unfairly maligned movies of our time. Other films given the “In Defense Of” treatment so far include The Next Three Days, Multiplicity, Speed Racer, Meet Joe Black, Alfie (2004), MacGruber, and The Island.
In 1996, Jim Carrey was on a roll. In the two years prior, he had gone from TV novelty (thanks to In Living Color) to box office superstar. His resume at the time read like a greatest hits of the ’90s: Ace Ventura, The Mask, Dumb & Dumber, and Batman Forever, all cemented his status as the premier film comedian of the time. He used that clout to cash in for a $20 million payday, which was basically unheard of back in ’96. The project? A dark, twisted black comedy about an obsessive cable guy, co-starring Ferris Bueller and directed by the geeky guy from Reality Bites who used to have his own sketch comedy show on Fox.
Pop culture critics immediately cried foul. Who was Jim Carrey to get $20 million for a single movie? And why this movie of all things? When The Cable Guy was finally released on June 14 of that year, people’s worst suspicions were realized. Too dark! Too disturbing! Not funny! Carrey is not likeable! He uses a silly lisp! People didn’t get it. Film critics were split- it has a 54% on rottentomatoes, and audiences didn’t take too kindly to it either, with the movie stalling out at about $60 million, in the wake of such other big hits as Mission: Impossible and Twister.
But, like all good things, The Cable Guy was just ahead of its time. Ben Stiller, in his directorial follow-up to Reality Bites, would later go on to appear in There’s Something About Mary and become a huge star in his own right. One of the producers on the film just so happened to be Judd Apatow, who now rules the comedy world in Hollywood. And, the supporting cast is incredible. Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Leslie Mann, David Cross, and Bob Odenkirk all appear at one point or another, some in bigger parts than others, but still. We didn’t know who they were back then, and we sure do now.
Production team filmographies aside, however, the actual movie is a gem in its own right. The Cable Guy is many things, but one of its greatest attributes is its running pop cultural commentary – on celebrity trials (Stiller plays spoof versions of the Menendez brothers on cable news broadcasts), on TV geek obsessiveness, on delusional fame seekers, and more. All of these ideas are just as prevalent today, if not more so. Stiller directs with a sure hand, and an insider’s knowingness. He is never better than when he’s sending up pop culture – just look at the series of trailers that opened Tropic Thunder, or his take on MTV-style Fashion Awards in Zoolander. He’s probably better than anyone else in Hollywood at nailing a type of parody so believable it could be confused for the real deal.
And, how about Jim Carrey? He plays “Chip Douglas.” Real name? Not saying. And, yes, he uses a lisp, but I think it’s a great character choice. Carrey has always been manic on screen, but audiences were never asked to question his sanity. Here, he teeters between absolute bonkers, fun guy, sympathetic loner, and deeply disturbed creep – sometimes all in the same frame – and you just go with it. More importantly, you laugh. It’s not the feel-good kind of laugh, it’s the awkward, sometimes uncomfortable laugh. Ricky Gervais would later perfect the formula with his David Brent in the U.K. version of The Office, but that kind of uneasy comedy definitely has its roots in The Cable Guy.
Carrey plays brilliantly off of the equally good Brodrick, as Steven Kovacs. The dynamic between the two is similar to the relationship between Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray in What About Bob. You truly feel for Brodrick throughout the movie, and certainly side with his character, but it’s hard not to take a certain sort of enjoyment from seeing Carrey crawl under his skin. And, the lines! Me and my brothers used to quote this movie endlessly, all using Carrey’s lisp. “He’s having a super time.” “Would you like some juuuu-iiice?” “The password is…penis.” “I got you the big screen TV, deluxe karaoke machine, and THX quality sound that would make George Lucas cream in his pants!” Dry land is not a myth. I’ve seen it.” And on and on.
My favorite scene has to be the Medieval Times sequence. I had never been to Medieval Times when I first saw the movie, and I still haven’t, but I like to think that The Cable Guy offers an accurate depiction of the place. Carrey putting chicken skin on his face, and saying “Hello, Clarice.” The Kirk/Spock-style face-off between Carrey and Brodrick in the middle of the ring. Carrey chanting, “The blue knight rules! The red knight sucks the big one! Down, down, down. Red knight goin’ down. Down, down, down.” Plus, this classic exchange between Janeane Garafalo (as a serving “wench”) and Brodrick’s Steven:
Steven: Can I geta knife or fork?
Wench: There were no utensils in medieval times, hence there are no utensils AT Medieval Times. Would you like a refill on that Pepsi?
Steven: There were no utensils but there was Pepsi?
If you avoided The Cable Guy in theaters or on VHS (yes!) back in the day due to the bad hype, now’s the time to check it out. If it’s been a while since you’ve last seen it, watch it again. This is one of the rare film comedies that actually improves over time. It is more relevant and timely today than it’s ever been. And, if you ask me, one thing is certain: Carrey’s performance is worth every penny of that $20 million. Though his star has faded in recent years, here’s hoping he can recapture some of the go-for-broke brilliance he shows in The Cable Guy.
“This concludes our broadcast day. Click.”
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