There are bad movies, and then there are bad movies. Some movies are so legendarily bad that they become pop culture punchlines for decades afterwards, like Ed Wood’s science fiction disaster Plan 9 From Outer Space. Some movies are so terribly misguided that they sink entire careers, like Mike Myer’s truly bizarre brownface comedy The Love Guru. And then some movies are only bad in that they completely confound the expectations of audiences. Those movies tend to get remembered as bad movies, even though they can be successful, well-received and adventurous. Jim Carrey’s best movie is that kind of bad movie. We’re talking about The Cable Guy.
At its heart, The Cable Guy is a simple movie. Matthew Broderick plays Steven Kovacs, the kind of nebbishy everyman he has made his stock in trade ever since ditching the chill attitude of Ferris Bueller. While moving into a new apartment after a failed marriage proposal to his girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann), he meets Chip Douglas (Jim Carrey), an odd cable installer. Fatefully, he takes a buddy’s (a little known Jack Black) advice to slip Chip a few bucks to give him free cable channels.
It made sense in 1996. Chip squirms his way into every aspect of Steven’s life, first acting as a kind of bizarre, rubber-faced free spirit who gets him to lighten up. We’ve all seen movies with a manic pixie dream girl, and that’s basically the formula here, just with Jim Carrey. But then things get weird.
Chip starts demanding more and more of Steven’s attention. He savagely beats up a man (a perfectly sleazy Owen Wilson) on a date with Robin. He hires a sex worker for Steven, gets him arrested, gets him fired and eventually there’s a life and death confrontation on the enormous central satellite dish of Los Angeles county. Chip unleashes a manic speech about the “information superhighway” that remarkably accurately describes the Internet as we know it today. At one point, a spider crawls across an unblinking Carrey’s face. This is a comedy.
At this point, The Cable Guy has become a footnote in Jim Carrey’s long and interesting career. But when it was released in 1996, it was a really big deal. In the span of essentially three years, Carrey had gone from being known primarily as the white guy on In Living Color to being the biggest film star in the world, bar none. He had had a few minor roles in films, most prominently as a very furry and very horny alien in the Julien Temple sci-fi comedy Earth Girls Are Easy. Then Ace Ventura: Pet Detective became an unexpected smash hit. Then The Mask did too. Then Dumber and Dumber also became enormous.
That was all just in 1994, three comedic box office hits in a single year. After starring as The Riddler in Joel Schumacher’s extremely toyetic Batman Forever, he returned to the pet detective well for Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls. By 1996, Carrey received $20 million to star in The Cable Guy, the single highest paycheck for a movie anyone had ever received at that point.
So, to say that there were a lot of expectations on The Cable Guy would be something of an understatement. Although Jim Carrey had been a successful impressionist and standup comedian even before In Living Color, he had experienced one of the most dramatic rises to stardom that Hollywood had ever seen. Every single movie had been bigger than the last, and every payday swelling accordingly. So when The Cable Guy merely performed extremely well at the box office, rather than being the single biggest hit ever, it was viewed as a disappointment. But all that just obscures that after a number of sustained, crowd-pleasing hits, Carrey had the courage to zag instead of zig.
The original script for The Cable Guy was written by Lou Holtz Jr., a first-time screenplay writer and L.A. attorney. Reportedly, the original story was light-hearted, a kind of frustrating buddy comedy. It was set to star Saturday Night Live’s Chris Farley, and then maybe Adam Sandler. Then, an up and coming writer named Judd Apatow was brought on to produce. He in turn brought in Ben Stiller, who he had worked with on the acclaimed but brief run of The Ben Stiller Show. The team of Jim Carrey, Apatow and Stiller essentially rewrote The Cable Guy into a whole new film.
The true achievement of The Cable Guy is not that it is the best version of one of Jim Carrey’s comedies of the time. It is the best commentary on those films. In Carrey’s previous hits, he played a series of weird characters that went so over the top that audiences had to laugh. The genius of this movie is that Carrey does the exact same thing with Chip as he did with Ace Ventura or Lloyd Christmas, but that the other characters realistically react to how upsetting and scary it would be around an unhinged maniac. At the very height of his fame, Carrey deconstructed his own successes and turned what made America love him into a dark, funhouse mirror image.
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Not surprising that the movie was quickly thought of as a failure. It still doesn’t have a great Rotten Tomatoes score, but it made a bucketload of money. Shortly thereafter, Jim Carrey pivoted into more serious roles like Man on the Moon. More recently, he has returned to goofy characters, even if they have the excuse of being based on video games. He’s rumored to show up in the MCU soon, but it feels unlikely he will ever again go as weird as he did with The Cable Guy. It’s the kind of movie that only someone at the top could make, even if it does take them down a notch. But it was still pretty amazing that he did.