Jim Carrey had quite the mid-90s run. The actor was already fairly well-known thanks to his stint on In Living Color, but back-to-back hits in Ace Venture: Pet Detective ($107 million worldwide), The Mask ($351M), Dumb and Dumber ($246M), Batman Forever ($336M), and Ace Venture: When Nature Calls ($212M) from February 1994 to November 1995 made the comedian a household name and earned him a $20M payday for his next venture, Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy.
Unfortunately, the dark comedy about a lonely and mentally disturbed cable guy in need of a friend ignited the media but failed to stir audiences itching for more of Carrey’s rubbery-faced mayhem. At the end of its run, The Cable Guy earned a still decent $102M at the box office, but was quickly and unfairly discarded as a misfire.
Carrey would go on to make Liar Liar ($302M) and The Truman Show ($264M), which got him back on top of the box office; he would later star in massive hits like Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas ($345M) and Bruce Almighty ($484M and still his highest-grossing film), but none of those movies quite matched the creative prowess of The Cable Guy, which, for me, is still Carrey’s best (and, perhaps, most personal) film — and this is coming from someone who adores Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Here’s the thing that makes Cable Guy stand out from the rest: it’s perhaps the only film in Carrey’s oeuvre that perfectly blends style with substance. Oh sure, Carrey is brilliant in Man on the Moon as Andy Kaufman, but the Milos Forman dramedy plays more like a series of vignettes featuring Carrey as the late comedian than an actual film about Kaufman. The Truman Show has plenty of substance but mostly keeps Carrey’s antics in check. Similarly, the actor’s performance in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine is appropriately more downbeat.
On the flip side, The Grinch is a terrible film that features Carrey at his absolute best from a comedy perspective, while Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty are formulaic comedies driven home by the actor’s brilliance.
Comparatively, The Cable Guy works as a Jim Carrey vehicle and a dark commentary on society.
Take, for example, Carrey’s titular cable guy, Ernie “Chip” Douglas, a young man so detached from reality his entire existence is based around TV episodes he grew up watching. There’s a bit where Chip fights Matthew Broderick’s hapless Steven Kovacs that takes a weird turn when the former tries to recreate a scene from Star Trek:
Chip’s dialogue stems from old TV shows or movies. The scene in which he beats up Owen Wilson’s even more hapless character is laced with lines such as “That’s gotta hurt, Gene!” likely stemming from Jesse Ventura’s antics with Mean Gene Okerlund. Chip’s entire getup in this scene looks like something from an old 60s sitcom.
In his review for the film, The Orlando Sentinel’s Jay Boyar explained:
Chip is just as intense about cable – and about TV in general – as he is about friendship. When he was growing up, television was his baby sitter, and now he’s obsessed with it.
Like the Riddler whom Carrey played in Batman Forever, Chip’s head is stuffed with small-screen trivia.
Confronting an opponent in a basketball game, he quips, “OK, let’s see what you got, White Shadow” – an allusion to a short-lived TV drama about a star hoopster. To end a conversation, Chip is likely to blurt, “This concludes our broadcast day. Click!”
Literally everything Chip does — from the way he handles relationships to the way he warms up for basketball — is based on something he saw on TV. His character, while equal parts outrageous and creepy, is also a sad and lonely figure completely disconnected from reality. He’s a good guy, just not good with people. His intentions are respectable, even if he doesn’t quite grasp the ramifications that result from hooking a friend up with a woman without informing the friend that said woman is actually a prostitute.
Indeed, Chip ranks among the most interesting characters Jim Carrey has ever played. He’s bats— crazy, but likable all the same. Just check out his intro in which Chip bounces into Steven’s home like a raging looney, but then switches gears almost immediately into something akin to professionalism before earning our sympathy due to his apparent speech impediment. It’s clear this guy has problems, but somehow he remains more, ah, interesting than problematic.
There are so many great scenes in The Cable Guy and each gives Carrey plenty of room to do his thing, but Stiller and screenwriter Lou Holtz Jr. go the extra mile by inserting a Menendez brothers-styled trial that, while mostly played for laughs, is a not-so-subtle jab at society’s ongoing love affair with reality TV.
Chip is mostly the product of a broken home where his mother neglected him, leaving him to find solace and in turn learn about the world via My Three Sons, Lassie and the like — a unique concept that actually plays better today than it did in 1996 when reality TV was merely a growing trend and not the backbone of network television.
Hilariously, the film ends with Chip throwing himself onto a satellite dish, an action that disrupts the final verdict of the Sweet trial much to the chagrin of the world; and leads one viewer to pick up a book.
On the nose satire. Check. And that’s the joke and the point of the film entirely, and something critics and audiences missed twenty-five years ago.
All this to say that, while Carrey has certainly been better in other projects, or featured in better films, The Cable Guy is the one feature that perfectly married the actor’s manic talents with a smart script and resulted in the best overall product of Carrey’s storied (and ongoing) career.
This concludes our broadcast day. Click.