October 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: The Cable Guy (1996)

Don't confuse October's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) with Larry the Cable Guy's Witless Protection, which I've never seen and have no desire to ever see. This is the Jim Carrey version, and yes, it's a total coincidence that I just posted about his next movie. Apparently this is Jim Carrey Central all of a sudden.

The Cable Guy is not a movie that did much for me on first viewing. I can't actually remember if I saw it in the theater, but it was sometime within its release year and it was still when quoting lines from it was all the rage. I would be remiss right now if I didn't mention that one friend in particular, Jeff Sauer, basically championed this movie for a decade. I'm not sure if it's still his favorite movie, but if not for his enthusiasm, I likely would never have eventually accepted that it's truly funny.

According to IMDb, the title character was originally written for Chris Farley, which would undoubtedly have made for a very different movie. It may have been just as funny, but it wouldn't have been nearly as subversive, creepy, or lasting. Jim Carrey was an odd choice at the time, having just starred in Ace Venture 2: When Nature Calls, but it may have been his work in 1995's Batman Forever that showed he had a bit of a dark side, and we now know that director Ben Stiller has a knack for such comedy (see: Tropic Thunder).

With The Cable Guy, Stiller (whose only notable directing credit had been 1994's Reality Bites) worked from an original screenplay by former Los Angeles city prosecutor Lou Holtz, Jr., whose filmography is positively prolific. How is that possible? Well, none other than a young and uncredited Judd Apatow,
"claiming that he wrote much of the movie's dialogue and many of the scenes", went so far as to challenge an official ruling by the Writers Guild of America (IMDb). So that's one explanation for the career of "Lou Holtz, Jr.," the other being that Lou Holtz wrote this film as a side project when he wasn't leading Notre Dame to ten straight winning seasons in college football.

Whoever wrote it, they certainly weren't reinventing the wheel. Stalker movies have been a common genre since Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, but The Cable Guy deserves credit for both adding comedy and subtracting the silly jump frights common to so many 90's stalker thrillers like Sleeping With the Enemy. In his two star pan of the film, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone (back when he didn't love everything) called it, "Single White Female with single white males; Fatal Attraction with sick laughs instead of sick sex."

OK...so what's the problem, if the laughs work?

Well, for most people the problem was seeing Jim Carrey play a wicked weirdo. Janet Maslin of the New York Times spoke for most of America in her scathing review: "
Mr. Carrey, who won legions of fans just by speaking from his buttocks, now tries the creepy gambit of talking with a lisp, sneering at strangers, behaving like a deranged stalker and wallowing in sad, stale references to ancient television shows. The film's only unifying attitudes are misanthropy and contempt. Such antics are sure to scare off part of Mr. Carrey's devoted following...there will be fallout from the fact that he has been paid $20 million for giving a scary, uneven performance that's often painful to watch. This is the way to kill a golden goose.
" So what are you saying, Janet - if I have a lisp, then I'm creepy?

Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times chimed in as well:
"Not funny enough to be a successful comedy and not coherent enough to be taken seriously, the latest film to star the talented Jim Carrey is a baffling combination of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective and Cape Fear, a misguided attempt to extend the actor's range by having him play someone who is demented and dangerous." (my emphasis - typecasting, anyone?)

See, but that's the point, Kenneth! He's supposed to be scary and creepy and weird and all of those things that you fear about the strangers in your life who stare just a little too long, stand just a little too close, and generally insert themselves into your personal life. Carrey is amazing in this role because he stays in character so well and, as he did in Dumb and Dumber, somehow injects believable emotion into a caricature of a creep. (Here's where I also mention the bit of trivia that I've always loved about this movie. Apparently, Jim Carrey couldn't dribble a basketball, so it had to be superimposed in post-production. I'm not in the NBA or anything, but doesn't dribbling a basketball qualify as a basic motor function?)

Matthew Broderick was a perfect match opposite Carrey here, as he was in the process of solidifying the character that he's played in pretty much every movie since: the mild-mannered stiff who makes puppy dog faces and always seems be juggling one too many balls in the air of his daily life. His best friend was aptly played by a young Jack Black and his girlfriend was - how about this? - Leslie Mann, future wife of Judd Apatow (seriously, this is how they met, even though his involvement on the film is mostly unknown to this day).

But we can forget about those two, because nobody really knew of either one of them at the time. No, The Cable Guy was Carrey and Broderick's movie to carry, and when it opened on June 14, 1996, expectations were high. The result: a #1 spot at the box office, pulling in $19.8 million opening weekend - just less than the record $20 million paycheck Carrey received for his performance. After that weekend, it was pretty much over for The Cable Guy. The crowded summer was already bursting with three blockbusters in Twister, Mission Impossible, and The Rock, and it would be only three weeks after The Cable Guy opened that Independence Day would arrive and own the month of July on its way to a $300+ million box office gross, tops for the year.

So, what have learned since 1996? That Carrey has finally proved his critics wrong, not only succeeding in his own dramatic roles, but also opening the door for other wacky comedic actors (Will Ferrell) to give drama a shot; that Ben Stiller excels at directing dark and/or satirical comedies; that Judd Apatow owned Hollywood comedies a full decade before anyone even knew it; and that my friend Jeff knew he was talking about when he called The Cable Guy one of the most unappreciated movies of the mid-90's.


  1. This marks one of the few times (if not first?) that I categorically disagree with you.

    The lisp. The stupid lisp. The bad, bad, bad idea lisp. It killed it. Even were the movie otherwise great (which I don't think it is), the lisp would have killed it.

    But that's not all. The overacting, central to Ace Ventura (btw, I hated the second vehemently but still love the first), was also to blame. It's as though Carrey was jolted with annoying electricity the entire film.

    They shot for the moon (or at least something creative) and failed here.

  2. Might be the first time, shouldn't be the last. These Underrated MOTMs should stir up a little controversy.

    I don't know the history behind the lisp. Was it something Carrey added during production? Seems like a weird thing for Holtz to have written into the character if not.

    I also hated When Nature Calls - hated it a lot. But why do you appreciate the overacting in the first AV and not the overacting in the The Cable Guy? I mean I realize they're two very different characters and that AV is more of a live-action cartoon, but still.

    Aside from Carrey (and it's fine if it's left at him), who do you find at fault? Stiller, Holtz, Broderick?

  3. Amen.

    I am not sure if I love this movie because nobody else liked it, or if it was genuinely good... but it has a place in my heart as an all time favorite.

    The movie as a whole may not be Oscar worthy, but there are some of the funniest individual scenes of any 90's comedy; pick up basketball, medieval times, Karaoke jam, the ongoing trial in the background with Ben Stiller playing the role of the Sweet brothers, porno password, and many more.

    Matthew Broderick acted horribly in the movie, but Jim Carrey made up for it in a lispy, creepy performance.

    How could you argue that this movie is NOT underrated? It is often slammed as on of the biggest disappointments in 90's cinema. I think the fact we are talking about it 12 years later is a testament to its greatness.

    Also, I have long maintained that this movie didn't go over well because America wasn't quite ready for Ben Stiller (and after reading this review, Judd Apatow). Had this come out after There's Something About Mary, the perception of this movie would be quite different.

    Thanks for the mention and for writing about my favorite movie of all time!

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head as to why I can appreciate the overacting in Ace but not in The Cable Guy. Ace was barely grounded in reality, while Chip was an out-there presonality in an otherwise pretty grounded film. He just needed to be reined in a bit.

    Which I guess answers your second question. I find Stiller most at fault. Carrey rode the overacting bit to stardom (Fire Marshall Bill, anyone?), but that doesn't make that strategy perfect for every role.

  5. Thanks for commenting, Sauer. I figured you might have something to add. Great point about the timing - it was just a weird stage in the careers of these guys. I reckon it would have done much better, as you say, had it come out a little later.

    Totally reasonable points, Fletch. It's been Carrey's Achilles' heel - over or underacting. I think, or hope, that he's able to balance it better at this point in his career.

  6. I agree with you and have liked The Cable Guy ever since I first saw it. The basketball scene and the breakfast scene in particular are hilarious.

    1. Thanks for digging this post out! Almost four years later and I think this movie still doesn't get enough love. You'd think it would be perfect for the TBS/TNT/USA/FX weekend movie line-ups, but maybe it's considered too "dark" for a general audience. Shame.

  7. I found this post by typing "Cable Guy underrated" into google because thats exactly what I think it is, vastly underrated. I really don't get some of the critiques on this film. I found it to be hilarious with a story that flowed nicely from scene to scene. Never understood why it wasn't more popular or well received. Maybe it was in fact the timing.

    1. Funny that you should post this right now - I was just channel surfing and see that it's on AMC, following an airing of The Truman Show. Interesting late 90's Carrey double-header that proves critics like Turan were just completely wrong in critiquing The Cable Guy for extending Carrey's range. I'll admit that Carrey's really dark stuff like The Number 23 might be a bit far, but he basically plays a creepy/dramatic character in so many more roles - Me, Myself, and Irene; Eternal Sunshine; Man on the Moon; and most recently I Love You Philip Morris.

      This is all an aside to the fact that, thanks to Stiller, The Cable Guy is funny enough even aside from Carrey's antics.


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