Cult Classic: The Cable Guy
When Hollywood gave Jim Carrey what was then the biggest actor pay cheque in history, they were rewarded with one of the comic's most delightfully odd yet sorely unappreciated roles.
Though it would seem inconceivable now, in the mid-1990s the jury was still out regarding Jim Carrey. Since he had been propelled to movie stardom by the surprise hit that was Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Carrey had gone on an incredible run of four consecutive films that had grossed over $100 million in the US - The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.
That was no mean feat for a comedian and $100 million+ grosses were hard to come by in the 1990s, so Carrey was duly awarded for his challenging role yet, The Cable Guy, with an unprecedented pay packet of $20 million (close to $30 million in today’s value) for a starring role in a movie whose production budget – Carrey aside – was $27 million. With dark subject matter and an unproven director in Ben Stiller, it was quite the gamble.
Carrey stars as Chip Douglas, a lonely TV-addicted cable guy who is bribed by Matthew Broderick’s lovesick Steven Kovacs in order to fix him up with free movie channels. Yet as the film’s advertising blurb told us at the time, Steven was about to find “that the price of cable had gone up”.
In Steven’s case, the price included endless phone calls, hookers, jail time and a Star Trek-inspired fight at a mock Medieval restaurant. It’s a truly odd comedy, which as time goes on, begins to reveal the addled nature of Carrey’s character before culminating in a surprisingly tense thriller-like third act.
The central themes of The Cable Guy may seem somewhat dated in today’s world of social networking (where arguably the Internet is a bigger time sink than TV) but the film seeks to explore what happens when careless parents allow their children to be raised in front of a TV screen. In one memorable line, a mournful Chip informs his new best friend: “I learned the facts of life… from The Facts of Life!”
Though Stiller’s duties are mainly behind the camera (every co-star from his 1990s sitcom The Ben Stiller Show appears in the film at one point), he nearly steals the show by appearing as twin brothers in an ongoing TV star murder trial.
Considering that the film was released a year after the OJ Simpson trial, it’s clear where the inspiration came from for the role yet it’s another layer of subtext over the audience’s relationships with television and when they can become unhealthy. If you’ve never seen The Cable Guy, try not to watch the full clip below (it culminates in a spoiler) but do watch the hysterical “Asian gang” defence beginning from 0.55.
Unfortunately, The Cable Guy’s pre-release was largely marked by critical slapdowns, owed mainly to Carrey’s salary for his starring role. The actor had essentially been set up for a fall and once critics sensed that the film was much darker fare than the comic’s previous family-friendly work and thus would likely be less lucrative, the film was torn to shreds and dismissed as an example of a Hollywood ego running riot.
Ultimately, a disappointing domestic box office return of $60 million put paid to Carrey’s $100 million+ run yet the actor returned nine months later with his biggest comedy success yet, the high concept comedy Liar Liar.
Thankfully The Cable Guy has since enjoyed a reappraisal and earned itself a cult following from those that felt it had an important point to make and did see it in an unconventional, yet frequently hilarious manner. If anything, it’s a shame that Carrey and Stiller haven't teamed up since.
With Carrey dancing around with CGI penguins and gurning as a 3D Scrooge and Stiller seeking out as many easy money trilogies he can procure (he has the Meet the Parents’ trilogy in the bag, while both Madagascar and Night at the Museum have third installments planned), both stars have inarguably lost their edge, as movie comics tend to do once they hit a certain age.
Perhaps the need to pay the bills and conform to family audience expectations won out in the end yet we’ll always have The Cable Guy to rewatch whenever we want to see both Carrey and Stiller at their most unhinged.
For more cult films, check out the Jameson Cult Film Club.