In Ben Stiller’s second feature as director, Matthew Broderick plays an architect who moves into a new apartment – only to find himself tormented by the man (Jim Carrey) who comes to install his cable television. The Cable Guy made history at the time in paying Carrey $20 million up-front to play the manic Chip Douglas. Despite earning a healthy profit in cinemas, it was perceived as a disappointment after Carrey’s growing box office success in Ace Ventura Pet Detective, The Mask, and Batman Forever. Thankfully we have the benefit of 25 years’ hindsight and can recognise The Cable Guy, despite some palpable studio interference and cuts, as one of Hollywood’s best comedies of its year.
Carrey holds the spotlight, but the key to The Cable Guy is Matthew Broderick. As the mild-mannered Steven Kovacs he provides a suitably flustered foil to Chip’s obsessive antics. More than that, though: Steven is aggressively ordinary. He is a normal, even boring, person. He is deliberately unremarkable. Broderick’s performance makes him rather amiable, but Steven’s banal nature acts as a yard stick against which Chip may be measured. Without Steven to signal his growing horror, Chip simply becomes another in a growing line of exaggerated, non-stop Jim Carrey performances – not different from Ace Ventura, the Mask, or the Riddler. Within Steven’s controlled world, however, Chip stands out as an absolute horror show. It is, broadly speaking, the same kind of performance. Through Steven, what is audience-pleasing lunacy in earlier films instead becomes everything from grating to actually rather frightening. It’s classic Carrey comedy by way of Cape Fear, and it is a unexpected change that infuriated mass audiences in 1996 but which ensures The Cable Guy remains a better film than much of what Carrey did before or since.
This is where the troublesome hints of studio interference become apparent. It is known that scenes were cut because those within Columbia Pictures found them too disturbing to include. The film’s final five minutes, that lead so perfectly to an appropriate and deeply cynical ending, suddenly end with pulled punches and lessons unlearned. Even in its compromised form The Cable Guy is effective, but you can imagine the superior edition that lurks just over the horizon.
Throughout the film runs a background story in which a failed child star (Stiller cameos) goes on trial for the murder of his twin brother. It runs along the whole film, sporadically drip-feeding the audience with fragments and details. The accused, drug addict Sam Sweet, blames the crime on ill-defined “Asians”. By the film’s mid-point there are already advertisements for the movie-of-the-week starring Eric Roberts as the twins. By the film’s climax it seems all of America are watching their televisions waiting for a verdict. It’s a subtle and clever indictment on the audience, and highly reminiscent of the pointed cynicism that crept into Stiller’s Reality Bites. It is easy for us to condemn the TV-addicted Chip Douglas, with his perspective warped entirely out of proportion. It is a little harder to laugh when we recognise ourselves in the viewing masses, all obsessively watching the trial over a murder that is – quite frankly – not of our goddamn business.
There are some nice performances in this film, including those by Leslie Mann and a comparatively understated Jack Black, but in the end this is entirely Carrey and Broderick’s movie. It is largely underrated and darkly funny, if a little to unpalatable for the mainstream audience it courted.