`Cable Guy' Star Not So Dumb Now

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XX 1/2 "The Cable Guy," with Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann, Jack Black, George Segal, Diane Baker. Directed by Ben Stiller, from a screenplay by Lou Holtz, Jr. Alderwood, Bella Bottega 7, City Centre, Crossroads, Everett Mall 4-10, Factoria, Gateway, Issaquah 9, Kent 6, Kirkland Parkplace, Lewis & Clark, Metro, Mountlake 9, Oak Tree, Puyallup 6, Snohomish, Valley drive-in. "PG-13" - Parental guidance suggested for mature humor.

At last week's critics' forum during the Seattle International Film Festival, the panel discussion began, half-seriously, with the puzzling phenomenon of Jim Carrey's career as Hollywood's $20 million-per-picture clown prince of wacko.

Offering modest validation to those of us who aren't so quick to dismiss Carrey out of hand, former Seattle critic and writer-in-residence at New York's Lincoln Center for the Arts, Kathleen Murphy, acknowledged that Carrey had a certain comedic talent that couldn't easily be denied, notably in connection to his darker moments of brilliance on TV's "In Living Color."

"The Cable Guy" proves that Carrey has a repertoire that goes beyond rubber-faced idiocy and "speaking" from his posterior. The brazen obnoxiousness of "Ace Ventura" has been amplified to please Carrey's established population of fans, but now more than ever there's a method to his madness. Give Jim Carrey some darker, edgier material and the Pet Detective becomes something else altogether: the bastard child of Jerry Lewis, Travis Bickle and Jessica Walter in "Play Misty For Me," with a nod to "Fatal Attraction" for an extra kick of neediness.

He uses pseudonyms lifted from a lifetime of round-the-clock television, beginning as a latchkey kid with an absent father and an uncaring mother who called the TV "the baby-sitter." Now a grown-up case of arrested development, he's a renegade cable-TV technician (his stolen truck bears the simple logo, "The Cable Company"), and when he installs cable in your house, he installs himself into your life. Be his friend or pay the consequences. Either way you're in for a heavy dose of TV-induced psychosis.

Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) is the Cable Guy's latest "friend," and he's vulnerable to the scheme, on hiatus from a rocky relationship and focused on his career as an up-'n'-coming architect. When he makes the mistake of offering $50 for free cable service, the Cable Guy interprets the bribe as an invitation to be inseparable pals. Viewing all of life through the memories of a zillion reruns, he's a lonely guy with a lisp, whose coterie of friends consists entirely of his "satisfied customers."

It's not long before Steven wants out of the friendship, at which point the Cable Guy mounts a campaign of sabotage, winning the affections of Steven's girlfriend (Leslie Mann) and parents (George Segal, Diane Baker) during a game of "Porno Password," and setting Steven up with a prostitute during a karaoke party that scales new heights of Jim Carrey delirium.

Running a parallel course to this mayhem is the ongoing coverage of a Menendez-like trial involving murder and twin brothers (both played by director Ben Stiller), turned into a TV movie starring Eric Roberts before the verdict is in. (The film's other spot-on cameo is by Janeane Garofalo, again doing more with a minute than most can do with a whole movie.)

"The Cable Guy" is Carrey's best movie to date because it has a point to make with all of its psychotic behavior. The Cable Guy is a worst-case scenario of a psyche fattened on junk-food media, so completely immersed in TV that he plays his remote like a virtuoso, fine-tuning with the precision of a techno-fanatic. Suckling the glass teat, he's deprived of nourishment and his antics are a desperate cry for help.

Carrey's on this occasionally compelling wavelength, and the character works because "The Cable Guy" embraces our collective TV memories while warning us of their cumulative effect. When Carrey and Broderick engage in armored battle in a medieval-themed restaurant, the fight turns into a replay of a classic "Star Trek" episode ("Amok Time," for all you Trekkers out there), complete with the show's original music. It's a stroke of comedic genius, juicing the familiar with a deranged twist of pop-culture overload.

The movie's chock full of such TV references, but Stiller ("Reality Bites") directs as if he were afraid to unleash the potential brilliance of Lou Holtz Jr.'s slightly undercooked screenplay. Stiller had an opportunity to take no prisoners, but holds back instead, never giving TV the merciless skewering it so miserably deserves. When the valid point is made (essentially, we're all better off reading books), Stiller makes it with an amateur's lack of subtlety.

"The Cable Guy" could have been as frightening as "Taxi Driver" without losing any of its humorous punch, but it weakens itself by avoiding a full exploration of the title character, while Broderick makes the most of a straight man who never achieves full dimension.

Thankfully, none of this stops "The Cable Guy" from being a savvy move on Carrey's part. While not the truly incisive film it could have been, this cautionary tale proves that there's more to Carrey than stupidity with an inflated price tag.