A bleak look at the loneliness of the TV Generation, Ben Stiller’s 1996 comedy The Cable Guy starred Matthew Broderick, an unassuming guy who needs a cable hookup, opposite Jim Carrey, a stalker who desperately wants a friend. “Chip Douglas” is the name the cable guy uses to introduce himself to Broderick’s character, Steven; after a series of awkward moments between the pair, newly single Steven makes the regrettable decision to accept Chip’s invitation to hang out the next day.
Their acquaintanceship quickly intensifies with Chip taking things to the extreme, exhibiting some disturbing (yet admittedly entertaining) behavior. After Chip makes an effort to reunite Steven and his ex-girlfriend, Steven distances himself from Chip and his stalkery ways. This causes Chip to go to even greater measures to ruin Steven’s life, culminating with a dramatic fight scene on a giant satellite.
It’s difficult to tell whether Carrey’s character is a sinister force or simply oblivious as to how human interaction works. With flashbacks of his dark childhood, sitting alone in front of the television with no one around, the audience can’t help but to sympathize with him. At one point in Chip and Steven’s short friendship, they have dinner together at Medieval Times where Chip’s a weekly patron. Even a day-to-day act like having a sit-down dinner needs to be distracting for Chip; he needs to be perpetually entertained by a show, his enjoyment heightened when it’s revealed that he had volunteered themselves to become apart of the spectacle.
The Cable Guy was released just two years after Carrey notched a string of box office hits, including Dumb & Dumber, The Mask, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. 1994 was also the year that saw Stiller’s directorial debut Reality Bites, which received mixed reviews but has since become a cult classic. A marked departure from Carrey’s wacky and cringy-but- lovable characters from the 1994 films, The Cable Guy was perhaps the first time an audience witnessed Carrey in an unlikable and malevolent role. (Sure, he played a villain in 1995’s Batman Forever, but his depiction of The Riddler could hardly be considered malevolent, or even unlikable.)
For this reason, even though The Cable Guy fared well in the box office, the film was met with mixed reviews from critics. Many panned the film for featuring a character unlike the Carrey they knew and loved; Roger Ebert wrote, “We want to like Jim Carrey. A movie that makes us dislike him is a strategic mistake.” Carrey’s performance was not a continuation of the characters from his previous box office successes, but did the film owe it to the audience to continue assigning him the same roles?
Perhaps the Jim Carrey audiences loved in 1994 wasn’t the real Carrey at all. In the recently released Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Carrey’s interviewed about the never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage of him working on the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. His Kaufman-like method acting approach to the role of Andy (and Andy’s alter ego Tony Clifton) caused all three personas—Jim, Andy, and Tony—to wreak havoc on the set. In the interview, Carrey refers to the audience thusly when discussing his start in comedy: “I asked myself, what do they want?”
He reveals that he built up a character—his “Hyde,” a carefree person totally unlike his real self—to entertain the masses. This outrageous on-stage persona made him a bona fide Hollywood star, and if at any point in his emerging career Carrey was opting to leave this alter ego behind, it was during The Cable Guy, in which he went from the “carefree guy” to the guy who cares too much.
Indeed, the original script was a lot less dark before Carrey convinced the writers to make changes. In an interview, Judd Apatow, a producer on the film, told Vulture: “I always thought that the script Lou Holtz Jr. wrote was great, and it’s what got us all very interested. But Jim wanted to change it significantly and make it much more of a comedic version of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Unlawful Entry, whereas the original draft was a little bit more like a What About Bob? annoying-friend movie.” It was the first time an audience witnessed Carrey demonstrating his emotional range beyond acting like a carefree fool, and that seems to be Carrey’s doing.
Chip’s lively joyfulness paired with a mysterious inner darkness has become a familiar aspect in Carrey’s characters. A slew of Jim Carrey’s outrageous characters that also exhibit a marked duality come after this film—specifically, I Love You Phillip Morris and especially Me, Myself & Irene, where his character tries to function with two dichotomized personalities. After the release of this film, he went from well-meaning fool to complicated individual, shedding certain aspects of the Carrey he created for the audience, and demonstrating his immaculate talent.
Despite having some success as a TV and film star, Ben Stiller’s foray into directing was met with a slew of challenges. His The Cable Guy follow-up, the 2001 satire Zoolander, was met with critical grievance; it didn’t help that the film, which emphasizes the vapidness, egoism, and bad labor practices so prevalent in the fashion industry, was released two weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
Eventually, though, Stiller found praise for 2008’s satirical war film Tropic Thunder, a film that shares successful elements with The Cable Guy. Stiller assigns great actors with roles that are totally unlike their real-life personas; audiences love seeing leading man Tom Cruise as Les Grossman, with a foul mouth and glaring bald spot, and redeemed Hollywood bad boy Robert Downey Jr. as a self-absorbed method actor whose use of blackface highlights his sense of complete obliviousness to the real world. Both Tropic Thunder actors received Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor, and Downey Jr. was nominated for an Oscar; but Carrey’s character in The Cable Guy was completely misunderstood and criticized for being off-brand.
To reconsider The Cable Guy is to understand its increasing relevance in the postmodern world. Set in a pre-social media culture, the film touches on the very real problems of trading human interaction for time spent invested in fictionalized characters. It’s understandable that, in 1996, not too many people could conceive of a person that spends most of their time indoors staring at a screen without conversing with people on a daily basis. Today, everyone knows someone that exhibits similar behavior. There are entire populations of people glued to social media, ordering delivery from an app to avoid phone conversations, only making friends online.
Throughout the film, Carrey’s character mimics and quotes loads of film and television characters, and in 1996 it might’ve been harder to imagine someone with such a narrow view of the world that they could only communicate through mimicking onscreen characters—but in 2018, the echo chamber of social media coupled with a televised 24-hour news cycle means that people simply repeating what they’ve heard is commonplace.
And ironically, it’s Jim Carrey’s previous characters—from Ace Ventura to Lloyd Christmas— that many kids energetically quoted throughout the 90s. Ace Ventura was the VHS generation’s friend like Ricky Ricardo was to the TV generation, and The Cable Guy illustrates what could happen when real relationships are replaced with one-dimensional characters. It’s a simple moral that’s exceedingly relevant in a world where one can be lonely—even with 10,000 online friends.
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