WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Steven Kovacs doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for when he tries to bribe a few extra channels from his cable guy, Chip Douglas. The arrangement somehow turns into a blossoming friendship, at least as far as Chip’s concerned; but when Chip starts turning up at all hours, delivering high-end electronics and cosying up to Steven’s girlfriend and family, Steven finds his life turning into a nightmare straight out of the Twilight Zone.
It would be fair to say that life hasn’t exactly been going to plan for Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick): he asked girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann) to marry him, she told him to move out. As Steven settles into his new pad, his friend Rick (Jack Black) suggests that he should tip his cable guy $50 to be hooked up to extra channels for free; and even though the guy, Chip Douglas (Jim Carrey), seems a little odd, the bribe is offered and taken, the quid pro quo being that Steven hangs out with Chip as a buddy.
Initially, the friendship goes well enough, Steven offering to help Chip overcome his lisp and Chip taking Steven for a surprisingly violent night out at a medieval-themed restaurant; but as Steven tries to win Robin back while remaining in his boss’s good books, Chip begins to loom ever larger in his life. He gives Steven ridiculous gifts – a huge TV and karaoke system, a party full of guests – and involves himself intimately in Steven and Robin’s personal lives, dealing viciously with Robin’s potential date and hooking her up with cable as – so she thinks – a reconciliatory offering from Steven. Although Steven eventually plucks up the courage to tell Chip to get lost, he discovers that this particular cable guy handles rejection very, very badly.
Life invasion movies come in all flavours, from cute and cuddly (Planes, Tranes and Automobiles) to sinister and psychotic (Fatal Attraction), so in theory there’s no reason why The Cable Guy shouldn’t work. It’s obvious what Ben Stiller’s black comedy is trying to do: Chip is the product of neglect, having been brought up more by television than his mother; and his sociopathic nature reflects thousands of hours spent in front of the box, his only friend and guide.
Also, the film repeatedly cuts to the televised trial of Sam Sweet (Stiller), accused of murdering his twin brother Stan, reflecting the box’s grisly fascination with lurid murders (at the time the film was made, O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers) and providing a decent set-up for a satire about TV’s malign influences.
Yet in execution, it doesn’t come off at all. Why? It’s easy to blame Carrey – or say he’s miscast, at least – and it’s true that his jaw-jutting, in-your-face, lisping lunatic is memorable for all the wrong reasons. The monster that TV created, Chip Douglas is a real grotesque, and one that the viewer wants to escape from every bit as much as Steven; but he’s only part of the movie’s bigger problem, namely its confused, awkward tone. It’s too broad to be a drama, too unsettling to raise many laughs, and its satirical intent is almost completely obscured by Carrey’s outlandish performance, an unfortunate irony given the subsequent success of the much blander Truman Show.
The Cable Guy fails because of its curious tone, indifferent writing and – whether you blame the actor or not – off-putting central character. All three are brought together during the central karaoke party scene where Chip belts out Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, a performance which is neither funny nor threatening, simply bizarre. Also, while you imagine the Sam/Stan Sweet subplot is going to become relevant to the plot in some interesting way, it doesn’t, although I understand that the lack of a pay-off to that story thread is precisely its point. And while I’m complaining, there’s a terrible edit made to the British DVD which removes Carrey headbutting Broderick, a nonsensical decision in the light of the vicious and not remotely comic beating dished out to Owen Wilson in a gents’ loo (perhaps the censors thought ‘Hey, it’s Owen Wilson, he deserves it’?).
It would be wrong to label the movie a complete disaster. Broderick, as usual, is pretty good as the ordinary man to whom dreadful things happen, while the rest of the cast are fine in small roles. As far as jokes go, there are a few gems: I shudder to think that places such as Medieval Times actually exist, but the utensils/Pepsi exchange between Broderick and a beautifully bored Janeane Garofalo is a joy. Furthermore, whilst I cringed throughout the scene of Chip meeting the Kovacs family, the film ramps up its deeply disturbed/disturbing tension consistently towards its action-orientated climax. In some respects, it’s also strangely prescient about the future of the information superhighway, since you can indeed shop from home and play Mortal Kombat with friends in Vietnam, should you choose.
If you liked Carrey’s larger than life performance in The Mask, you may well enjoy his equally arresting performance here. Alternatively, you might be put off (as I was) by his character’s oddities and vicious nature; and if you didn’t like Carrey in the first place, The Cable Guy is very unlikely to bring you round. Ben Stiller’s movie is a curiosity which works as an examination of the dangers of embarking on ‘casual’ friendships, as well as an uncomfortable warning about letting the television in the corner babysit your children. Sadly, it doesn’t work half as well as a piece of entertainment.