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It’s cliché to say a film is ‘ahead of its time’ but that’s what many thought when they first stared slack-jawed at Jim Carrey’ The Cable Guy, but the problem with that statement is no one ever says when that time is meant to be. In all honesty, there might never be a time where this incredibly dark and viciously satirical movie will ever ‘fit in’ and perhaps that’s best, it being a grand experiment that just gets better the more time passes.
By 1996, most us knew Jim Carrey pretty well. He was the rubber-faced goof who would literally do anything for a laugh, his shockingly flexible frame and face making him a kind of be-anything-do-anything shapeshifter we’d never seen before. He’d built a following on television as a cast member of the sketch comedy show In Living Color, but steamrolled into box office superstardom with two Ace Ventura movies, a Batman film, and the now iconic Dumb and Dumber, among many other earlier works where his spastic but easy-to-digest style was winning critics and fans around the world. And then there was The Cable Guy.
THE STORY: Directed by Ben Stiller, and initially scripted as a light comedy, it follows a young man named Steven M. Kovacs (Matthew Broderick), who, after his girlfriend declines his marriage proposal, gets his own apartment with hopes of winning her back. When a pal (Jack Black) hints that if he offers the cable installer a little something extra he can get all the premium channels, he haplessly bribes Ernie “Chip” Douglas when he arrives, who agrees to the deal and earmarks Steven as a ‘preferred customer.’ In this movie’s world, that like saying yes to the Devil.
Steven is soon caught in the cable guy’s wickedly off-center snare as we learn that Chip is more than a little off the beaten path, desperate for a friend, a near lunatic with no filters and and even less social skills, buying companions and women with cable deals and electronic upgrades. With Steven, however, he takes a vested interest and clings to him with jarringly unhealthy well, clinginess.
Their rocky relationship becomes mostly about Steven’s efforts to win back his girlfriend, but sinks to an abyss of violence and Medieval Times dinner fights that sees the two become enemies, for which Steven is no match in a contest of power, leaving him to the maniacally-driven cable guy’s whims. A product of the very thing he delivers, Chip grew up isolated in front of the television, and it has shaped who he has become, and how he defines his relationships. All with no commercial breaks.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Anyone coming into The Cable Guy is in it for Carrey. He’s the guy on the poster. His name is at the top of the list, and he is the titular main character. He was also paid twenty million dollars, which in 1996 was a staggering fee, and a at-the-time record-setting salary for an acting gig. This was a Jim Carrey project (even if was written for Chris Farley) and he spun it into one of his most freakishly brilliant roles, slicing everything we thought we knew about his potential in half, exposing the dark hollows within that perhaps was always there waiting to seep to the surface. It’s a spectacularly good performance that wrings every last drop of dark-side Jim Carrey it can. Delicious.
That said, keep your eye on Broderick, who taps into the straight man role with equal zeal. Broderick began his career as a leading man type, his youthful good looks and endless charisma making him the perfect teen foil for those pesky adults, but as a grownup, be found a new path as a soft-spoken wallflower, the very reason a Ferris Bueller could thrive.
Here, he is pitch-perfect as the bullseye Chip aims for, a timid, malleable fellow that in all honesty, as the film makes clear, needs a guy like Chip to help him find his way. From the opening scene to everything in-between, The Cable Guy might be remembered for Carrey but it survives on Broderick.
A GREAT MOMENT: If there is a sequence that perhaps define the film best, it would be the aforementioned Medieval Times moment when, after Steven is forced into hanging out with Chip, basically blackmailed into the dinner. Chip is a regular customer at the gig and gets them a sideline seat to the event, himself taken in by the spectacle of the ancient contests.
Meanwhile, Steven squirms, trying to find a way to get out of their so-called friendship, hoping to use his need to reconnect with his girlfriend as an excuse. But Chip’s onto him and has arranged a special event of his own, pitting him and Steven against each other in the arena, something he’s able to make work out due to giving all the knights at the place free cable.
In the ring, dressed in armor, they do battle, with the timid Steven trying to talk his way around it as Chip goes full-bore Knight mode and attacks, using a variety of weapons until they are both wielding Vulcan Lirpa weapons and re-enacting the classic fight scene from Star Trek‘s (the original series) Amok Time where Spock fights Kirk, complete with the actual musical score from the show. It’s just awesome and Carrey is a ridiculous tour-de-force as he takes a step back and then leaps over the cliffs of sanity.
The sequence is a gem of a comedy moment and puts the two characters directly at odds as Chips realizes he has no friend in Steven and Steven understands that Chip is perhaps a wee more crazy than expected. Sure, he has some fun but things only escalate from here and the entire moment is a microcosm of the movie itself. It’s really good.
THE TALLY: The Cable Guy is one-off dark comedy for Carrey and while it did okay at the box office, it was considered a flop with audiences rejecting the heavier tones and more bleak comedy, something way off track from what his fans bought tickets to see. Twenty years on, it has aged nicely, and is not nearly as dark as it was then. With modern comedies far more antagonistic, it is almost tame in comparison. It holds a cult status among select fans and if you’re looking for something both nostalgic and a little less traditional, get indoctrinated and dip yourself into the cool black waters of The Cable Guy. It’s what to watch.