The Cable Guy

"Better than you expect" doesn't necessarily mean "good"
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1996
Director: 
Ben Stiller
Starring: 
Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann, Jack Black
The Setup: 
The cable guy is a psychopath in this unnerving horror-comedy.
Discussion: 

I remember when this movie came out, and flopped hard, with everyone saying it was way too dark and bizarre for the wacky Jim Carrey comedy it was portrayed as [at the time there was a question of what other kinds of roles he could possibly do]. But over the years it has started to grow in respect, and if you look on IMDb the one word you’ll see repeated over and over is “underrated.” Then when a friend I respect told me that not only is it pretty good, but has quite a hefty homo angle, I finally put it to the top of my list.

We begin with a montage of TV channels as Matthew Broderick as Steve flips channels. He has just moved into a new apartment because his longtime girlfriend, Robin, dumped him when he proposed marriage. He is waiting for the cable guy, who was supposed to be there four hours ago. Just as Steve goes to take a shower, of course the cable guy arrives.

This is Jim Carrey as Chip Douglas, who is… Jim Carrey, doing his Jim Carrey schtick. He is manic all over Steve’s apartment, and just a little too close in all sorts of ways—he arranges Steve’s furniture while he’s out of the room. He keeps pressure up on Steve until he essentially extorts a “date” out of him for the next night.

Chip takes Steve out to this huge satellite dish in the woods, where all the channels apparently come in for the town. When Steve asks Chip’s name. Chip says wonderingly “Wow, you really want to know my name.” He hears of Steve’s problems with Robin, and gives him advice on how to land a date with her and get her to start reconsidering him. Steve follows his advice and soon has Robin coming over to—you guessed it, watch cable.

Throughout this we have seen snippets on the television of a celebrity murder case, during which one of these two twin child TV stars killed the other. Both stars are played by director Ben Stiller. This comes up a few times throughout the movie.

Steve is trying to play basketball with his friend Rick, played by Jack Black, when Chip shows up and acts so violent and obnoxiously he drives all the other friends away. When Steve gets home, he has ten messages from Chip on his machine. He doesn’t answer, because Robin is coming over that night, but he finds that when he goes to turn the TV on he has no cable. Chip is outside the door, jealous, and extorts another date out of Steve before he’ll turn the cable back on. In here we have a flashback to Chip’s childhood, in which he wishes desperately for a brother.

Their date the next night is at a Midieval Times theme restaurant where they end up having to do battle, and beat each other pretty badly. In here Chip enacts a lot of scenes from television, and can’t be convinced that he isn’t in a TV show. When Steve gets home from work the next day, he finds that Chip has installed a massive, room-size entertainment system in his living room, all for free, and probably stolen. When he refuses it, of course Chip gets bent out of shape.

SPOILERS > > >
Chip takes Steve to a karaoke party, where Carrey does a funny, full-length imitation of Grace Slick singing “Someone To Love.” Meanwhile Steve goes into a bedroom with the one attractive woman there, where she… gives him a vigorous head massage? Yes, but it is clearly meant to stand in for wild sex. The next morning Steve is horrified to find out that this woman he thought he connected with was a prostitute hired by Chip. He kicks Chip out [they were having breakfast the next morning, by the way] and Chip says “This is just a speed bump.” Throughout all this the undercurrent is that in a way, they are really dating, with jealousy and coercion into dates and breakfast the next morning and problems being a “speed bump” in their larger relationship.

Then Robin goes out on a date with Owen Wilson. Chip dresses is disguise and infiltrates the restaurant. When Owen goes to the bathroom, he beats the shit out of him—no, REALLY beats the shit out of him—and this is when the movie really starts veering into the territory where you’re thinking “You know, this really isn’t funny…” There’s a bit of torture thrown in as well. At one point Chip forces Owen’s mouth onto a hand dryer and barks “Suck it!” I will merely offer you the frame below and as you to ake up your own mind as to whether there is a slight hint of the homoerotic here.

Chip now goes over to Robin’s and installs cable, saying it’s a gift from Steve. At this point Steve finally tells Chip “I don’t really want to be your friend,” and leaving him abandoned in the rain. The next day Steve is arrested at work in the middle of a big meeting, for receiving stolen property—the entertainment system Chip installed. He is sent to county jail for the weekend, which is portrayed here as a full-blown penitentiary with nasty lifers who—well, what else are they going to want in a base comedy? You guessed it. Chip comes to visit, acting like he’s going to help Steve get out—ignoring mentions of the fact that he put Steve in there—and when Steve rejects him again, opens his shirt and presses his nipple against the window, pretending to be Steve’s gay lover. The idea is that this will brand Steve as gay in the prison, and he can just kiss his anal elasticity goodbye.

When Steve is let out on bail, he goes to a family dinner—only to find that Chip has infiltrated his family. They play dirty charades, and finally Steve stands up to Chip, over the protestations of his family, who don’t understand what Steve would have against the wonderful Chip. By this point the fuilm has long left being funny goodbye, and has entered the realm of pure horror, as Chip is clearly a very dangerous psychopath, and furthermore, one cannot think of any way to be rid of him. This is becoming a pure homoerotic Fatal Attraction, only, truth be told, Chip is a little scarier, as he has done nearly nothing one could go to the police about.

Well, it’s been 75 minutes—time to wrap ths up! Steve finds out that Chip is not Chip—Chip Douglas was the name of one of the kids on My Three Sons, and furthermore, this guy has never worked for any cable company. While this is being discovered, Chip has taken Robin out to the big satellite dish for the climax. When Steve arrives, Robin is tied up hanging from the dish, and it is, of course, raining. The guys have a fistfight, which Chip thinks is “the ending of a movie,” i.e., he can’t believe it’s real. Intercut with this is footage of people nationwide awaiting the verdict of the Sweet trial [remember the celebrity trial thing with Ben Stiller?]. The film suddenly veers into that in an attempt to pull on some “larger cultural significance” at the last moment.

Okay, by this time the film has painted itself into a corner: Chip is a dangerous cunning psychopath, and there is no way to be rid of him. So then how to resolve the movie? Well, what if Chip were to have a sudden, completely unmotivated realization that he’s been wrong all along, and decide to kill himself? It’s a plot turn not from left field, but rather from SPACE, but it’s what the movie does. Chip tells a brief sob story about how his mother left him alone all day in front of the TV, and he grew up with that as his reality [see: Grasps for Larger Significance (GLS), Part Seven], and this is intercut with footage of the nation wrapped up in the celebrity trial [GLS:9]. You see, we’re all like Chip, raised on television, until we can’t tell what’s real! What a SCATHING INDICTMENT OF A CULTURE GONE MAD. Chip decides to kill himself [Thanks, buddy!], and falls. Steve tries to save him—because if he didn’t, Steve couldn’t be our hero—but Chip falls and lands on the point of the dish, shorting out nationwide cable at the exact moment the celebrity trial verdict is about to be read. This causes people to be flummoxed about what to do, and one guy—and I do indeed hope this is intended as parody, because it’s too awful to imagine it as sincere—picks up the book sitting on his nightstand, and, within seconds, as discovered the simple pleasures of reading! Apparently in the original ending Chip dies, but here there’s a little coda where he’s picked up by a helicopter, and there’s a hint that he’ll start obsessing over that guy now.
< < < SPOILERS END

It really is just bizarre. I don’t think it is necessarily that GOOD, as much as it begins to seem like it’s good because it is so dark and unusual where one expects a mindless Jim Carrey comedy. Yes, it is very dark, and it has a very odd tone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the director has mastered or even intended that tone. In fact, in its final form, this film seems like the result of a series of massive compromises. I would imagine—none of this is supported by any evidence I have—that it was written as a very dark comedy, but then Jim Carrey became attached. And they couldn’t give up the influx of funding Carrey’s presence might have brought to the film, but at the same time it meant that the tone had to be lightened and room had to be made to do his schtick. We know from the fact that the ending was changed that there was some audience testing involved, and god knows what changes that wrought. So the whole thing ultimately has the feel of a compromised vision that yeah, is a little unusual, but is not necessarily a masterpiece.

I personally don’t find Jim Carrey very funny. It seems like he is “being funny,” rather than acting his role and just happening to be funny in it. However, there is an edge of psychosis in his dementedness anyway, one just wishes he would run with it a bit more and be less self-conscious. Much as I never really never want to see Jack Black, his presence in this movie made me think how much better he might have been in the Chip role. Black has that psychotic fixed glare he can do, and it would be interesting to see what he could bring to the role of an obsessed psycho.

The homo angle is quite solidly there, but really adds very little to the film or one’s understanding of the situation. The film just kind of acknowledges that the friendship Chip wants is very much like a dating relationship, which, hey, at least it doesn’t run from that, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Which is fine—the film never sets up that it will.

One other aspect that lands with a giant splat is the reach for larger social significance at the end. The celebrity trial is woven in so closely at the beginning, one is sure that eventually our characters are going to meet Stiller himself at some point. Then the movie drops it entirely for quite some time, until it suddenly comes back at the finale—at which point you kind of say “Oh yeah, there was that whole trial thing.” Then the movie suddenly tries to blame Chip’s psychosis on watching too much TV, and to draw larger connection between TV watching and a larger social engagement in meaningless “news,” such as the celebrity trial—and like I said, I really hope that “Just pick up a BOOK and discover the joys of READING!” plug at the end is satirical. But it’s just not woven into the story enough, and comes off as just what it is: a last-minute attempt to convince us that there is some social statement being made here, rather than it just being an amusingly dark comedy.

It has its virtues, especially if you like Stiller and his usual compatriots, but like all of his movies, it lacks a focus that would make it all come together into a whole, and thus remains a series of amusing vignettes. It may be better than you expect, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Should you watch it: 

I think you’re safe in skipping it, but it won’t hurt you.