Ben Stiller’s “The Cable Guy” was ahead of its time and too hip for the room in 1996.
Arriving not long after Jim Carrey’s breakthrough superstardom as a comedy leading man, Carrey found himself in a position few movie stars could ever dream of.
The former “In Living Color” MVP became the breakout sensation of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and the star of surprise blockbusters “The Mask” and “Dumb and Dumber” (all in 1994). Carrey, whose initial attempts at a film career the prior decade (anyone remember “Earth Girls Are Easy?”) went nowhere, became one of the most in demand comic actors of all time.
It was not an overnight success. Once he broke through, it was straight to the top.
He followed this up with the unsurprising smashes of “Batman Forever” and “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” (both 1995) and suddenly became very rich. In fact, the richest, as Carrey was about to receive an unprecedented $20 million a movie, beginning with his starring role in “The Cable Guy.”
The premise: Chip, a cretinous cable repair man (Carrey) won’t stop bothering Steven, one of his clients (Matthew Broderick). On paper, it sounded like a formula comedy that could write itself — in fact, it was formerly intended as a vehicle for the late Chris Farley and David Spade.
With Carrey attached, it transformed into something altogether different than what most (namely the studio) had in mind. What resulted was a dark, sometimes goofy but genuinely edgy farce. This is the best thing about it, of course, though in 1996, the film’s willingness to be off brand and sinister were seen as a misstep.
As Carrey’s Chip initially befriends Broderick’s Steven, we see how Chip gradually annoys him by being too clingy, but oddly endearing himself to Steven’s girlfriend (a delightful Leslie Mann). Steven’s skeptical buddy, played by Jack Black, is among the few who senses something is very wrong about Chip.
There’s a funny visit to Medieval Times (possibly the film’s best remembered sequence) but once the pair have a breakfast discussion that turns into a shocking reveal of intimacy, “The Cable Guy” goes all in with keeping the audience uncomfortable and off balance.
This was made during that time during the late 20th century when everyone was burnt out on the O.J. Simpson trial, MTV was the preferred method of experiencing new pop music, cable TV was a way to access recent theatrical films and commercials were so long they had a hypnotic pull.
Reality TV was still in the Jerry Springer trash talk show phase and having a satellite dish was like having a pre-Internet window to the rest of the world. Stiller taps into this era, when television had a classical, distinctly 20th century grip on all of us.
There were no binge-watching seasons at the time (unless they were from VHS box sets), no entire channels dedicated to Reality TV and everyone knew the lyrics to the theme song for “The Brady Bunch.”
Ben Stiller is among the most heavy-handed directors of farce, The Michael Bay of Comedy
Also, and most importantly, this was when classic TV sitcoms weren’t just a glimpse of our pop culture past and provided a fabricated version of American life, but offered a reference point the zeitgeist shared (everyone knew who Wally and The Beav were).
Carrey’s performance is a shrewd commentary on the passive-aggressive comedy roles he’d played previously. “The Cable Guy” is a reaction to his brand of comedy as much as “Punch-Drunk Love” is a response to the roles Adam Sandler had played up to that point.
Coincidentally, both of these films were rejected outright by audiences but found devoted fans much later on.
FAST FACT: “The Cable Guy” made a respectable $60 million at the U.S. box office, but those figures couldn’t match other Carrey smashes. “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” hauled in $108 million the previous year.
Broderick is excellent, not simply giving his co-star a launching pad for jokes but scoring many of the biggest laughs himself. His character is a civil but foolish man who is prey to the need to impress and get ahead. Chip enables Steven, whose mix of cowardice and politeness is his weakness.
It plays like a parody of an alpha male fantasy — call it the anti-“Fight Club,” with Chip a Tyler Durden whose take-charge philosophy can barely disguise the lonely stalker he actually is.
This became a very different film from what the unmade Farley/Spade pairing suggested and, in producer and uncredited co-writer Judd Apatow and Stiller’s hands, a richer, stranger and startlingly darker film than anyone expected. The imagery is so unsettling at times, John Ottman’s music score occasionally tries to soften it and doesn’t always succeed.
The closer this inches towards becoming a horror movie, the better it gets.
The “Sam Sweet” subplot resembles a ripe outtake from “The Ben Stiller Show,” which was fiendishly clever in its movie satires, akin to a great Mad Magazine parody. The problem with that series is that the jokes are so specific to that time, with much of the episodes feeling like an in-joke upon revisitation.
“The Cable Guy” holds up a lot better, even as the concept of a TV repairman coming to your home to install cable is no longer relatable in the digital world.
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Yet, as a send up of male comradery and the issue of class difference hindering a friendship (Broderick’s white-collar snob looks down on Carrey’s Chip and his blue-collar life), “The Cable Guy” has a real sting. Like a great Thomas Berger novel, it questions our social etiquette, asks us how long we act polite and put up with someone who is clearly clinging too hard at best, or, at worst, is just clearly unstable.
As a spoof of the kind of stalker thriller that was commonplace in the 1990s (everything from “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” to “The Temp”), it’s not a jokey homage, like “Spy Hard” from the same summer, but is close enough to the real thing that, at times, it’s actually scary.
This alone is reason why Stiller’s film is so good — Carrey would make another horror film, “The Number 23” (2007), but it doesn’t rattle you like “The Cable Guy.”
Stiller has made other comedies that connected, but this is his best film. Is it better than his wildly popular “Tropic Thunder” (2008)? Or preferable to his Hallmark card to himself, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (2013)? Does it resonate far more than his zeitgeist-baiting “Reality Bites” (1994), which tried and failed to defy Gen-X?
Absolutely, because Stiller tends to over-direct and smash the jokes at the audience rather than smartly set up and unveil a gag. He’s among the most heavy-handed directors of farce, The Michael Bay of Comedy. His movies all have great scenes, but they feel too studied, as though Stiller is mocking film conventions but badly wants to be in the same league as the filmmakers he’s sending up.
“The Cable Guy” only goes truly over the top during the basketball sequence, which almost becomes a Filter music video. Otherwise, the film is on the level with Carrey’s demonstrative but sincere, unsettling performance. Perhaps it pulls its punches, especially during a nightmare sequence that would be so much more disturbing without the choice of music.
Yet, even if Stiller somewhat muffles how dark Carrey and the movie overall were willing to go, he at least leaves enough on the screen to rattle, if not seriously disturb, his “Ace Ventura” audience. The scene of Chip talking on the phone in extreme close up, while a spider casually crawls across his face, is pretty fantastic.
Clearly, Stiller and Carrey were all too aware of his “family friendly” appeal (which was a joke, since Carrey’s PG-13 movies were not intended for the children who devoured them) and wanted to annihilate his cuddly image.
They nearly succeeded.