The professional critical contingency, as they are so often prone to do, got their collective panties in a twist when The Cable Guy hit theaters some 15 years ago and a great deal of their criticism was pointed directly at Jim Carrey’s unsettling central performance—a performance Janet Maslin referred to pejoratively as a “volatile comic talent in free fall.” Up until the film’s release, the In Living Color alum had stuck closely to cinematic buffoonery, calling on his considerable “volatile comic talent” to literally talk out of his ass in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and sabotage his best friend’s date with laxatives in Dumb & Dumber. He made himself, Warner Bros., and New Line Cinema a lot of money off those properties and made a lot of people laugh, including the preteen incarnation of this reviewer. The Cable Guy itself made plenty of money for Columbia Pictures, but the populists were riled, casting a storm cloud over its fiscal success. It was true: America’s Golden Guffaw God had gone dark, embodying a nightmare vision of a culture he partially help mold and the results did not go down easy.
Carrey, however, was not the only funny man that took a critical shot to the ribs for the film. The project, released in the summer of 1996, marked the second directorial effort of a young Ben Stiller, who had gathered a cult following from both his eponymous, often brilliant sketch show and his delightful Gen-X rom-com debut, Reality Bites. Though perhaps largely remembered for bringing Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” to the masses, Reality Bites did not want for moments of scathing analysis on the MTV generation, who were portrayed both as sell-outs unknowingly repackaging their own culture as a two-minute advertisement for reality programming and self-righteous artists finding glory in unemployment and open-mic nights at local coffee houses and bars. Stiller had a taste for satire, and with The Cable Guy his strides toward more serious comedy grew more ambitious, a word that is bandied about Hollywood positively but rarely makes anyone popular.
The film did indeed deal directly with some very ugly emotions, and the discomfiting brand of humor that Stiller, Carrey, and screenwriter Lou Holtz Jr. had built out of these emotions had yet to be popularized by Apatow and, in a different sort of way, Ricky Gervais. Many of the same critics who denounced the film went onto herald The Nutty Professor and The Birdcage, two soft-minded, complacent box office smashes, that same year. Neither of them were bad films, but they seemed perfectly calibrated to find a happy second life on the boob tube, the particular piece of electronics that architect Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) is fidgeting with when he first encounters Carrey’s essentially nameless cable representative, who we are initially introduced to as “Chip.” Peer-pressured by his best friend (Jack Black) into attempting to bribe Chip for an all-access, off-the-books hook-up, Steven makes a deal with the devil when he allows Chip to give him illegal cable.
Stiller sets Carrey loose on Broderick and the rest of the cast in a series of extended comic episodes that border on the grotesque and unfold in settings that would befit a particularly twisted sitcom. Indeed, Holtz’s screenplay might as well have been conjured after watching a VHS copy of Strangers on a Train after the cable went out. Perpetually referencing everything from lines in Waterworld to scenes from Star Trek, Carrey’s sociopathic clinger offers the sight of a persona erased and rebuilt almost completely out of the remnants of pop culture; his singular personal trait, a potent lisp, could be seen as an outcome of constant performance anxiety. The character is meant to play as a mélange of archetypes and stereotypes and its thanks solely to Carrey’s daring high-wire skills as a humorist and as an actor that this entity seems even slightly human by the film’s conclusion, brilliantly set on a cable transmitter.
Whether playing a round of Naughty Password with Steven and his family, butting in on Steven’s friendly game of basketball with his friends or delivering an apocalyptic rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” Carrey’s volcanic abilities help to make the more routine parts of Stiller’s film go down easier. The plot concedes a flimsy love story involving Steven and the woman who refused to marry him, played by Leslie Mann, who met producer Judd Apatow on set and married him a year after the film saw release. Mercifully, however, Holtz’s script hinges on the relationship between Steven and the titular creeper and the love interest simply offers Carrey more arenas in which to run amok.
The director, who intermittently shows up on Steven’s television as Stan and Sam Sweet, a hybrid of O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers, shoots all of this with verve and fluidity to spare, though he succeeds most commendably in framing and editing his star’s physical antics. Two years later, There’s Something About Mary would announce Stiller’s ability as a leading man and, two years after that, Meet the Parents would secure his place as a box office lock on par with Eddie Murphy. Balancing the Night at the Museum films and severe clunkers such as the Farrelly brothers’ atrocious remake of The Heartbreak Kid with profoundly personal and grounded work in The Royal Tenenbaums and Noah Baumbach’s excellent Greenberg, Stiller to this day still seems at his happiest and loosest when he’s directing himself, taking the lead roles in both Zoolander and the vicious Tropic Thunder.
As impressive and intensely funny as both those films are, The Cable Guy remains Stiller’s best work as a director, doling out Dutch angles and handling action and dream sequences with a deft touch. Detailing a disconnect from reality that began with television and has only gotten worse in the age of Facebook, Stiller’s film is every inch as good as The Truman Show, a similar, though more philosophically aware film that featured Carrey again as the eponymous figure shaped by television. Released two years after The Cable Guy, The Truman Show would win Carrey a Golden Globe and lay down a clear path toward his admirable work in Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but he wouldn’t mess with dark, dangerous humor again until 2010’s I Love You Philip Morris. The times had to catch up with The Cable Guy, and now seen in hindsight, it seems as bold an American comedic statement as was available in the mid-to-late 1990s. Over a decade after its release, I would find myself in a particularly relevant, sufficiently surrealist moment as I discussed Stiller’s film with a hipster at a birthday party, who later blamed the end of culture on Zuckerberg’s invention and then went onto recall some 15 seasons of The Real World in detail without a hint of irony.
Sony's 1080p transfer is on the better side of serviceable. There are vast improvements over Sony's DVD release, especially in terms of color and overall clarity. The heavy use of grays and blues are pronounced and other colors are handled well. Facial definition and skin tone are also well maintained. That being said, there is plenty of room for improvement in darker scenes and several moments where clothing lacks for detail and looks a bit flat. But overall, this looks great. The sound is also more serviceable than negligibly great. Dialogue and music are out front and sound great but the atmosphere noise could have used a bit more attention in terms of balance. Altogether, however, there's nothing that averts attention from the film's Blu-ray performance.
The sensational, newly recorded commentary track by Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, and Judd Apatow is the real prize here. Consistently insightful and funny, the three comedians offer a series of anecdotes about the production, casting, the origins of the project and on-set decisions, while also riffing on the film's themes. Two behind-the-scenes featurettes—one for Comedy Central, the other for HBO—are enjoyable but don't add much in the face of the commentary track. The rehearsal footage, gags and deleted/extended scenes are wonderful, if merely for their view into Carrey's process. A theatrical trailer, footage from a dream sequence, and a music video for the song "Leave Me Alone" from the film's soundtrack are also included.
An unsettling oddity and unexpected box office success at the time of its release, The Cable Guy now seems a prophetic dark comedy and a key into the sensibilities of Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, and Judd Apatow.